A struggle at the roots of the mind: service and solidarity in dialogical, relational and collaborative perspectives within contemporary art
By Brian Hand
Raymond Williams in his definition of community offers the dialectic of
solidarity and service (working with people or voluntary work sometimes
paid), and sees this dialectic on a philosophical level as operating between
idealism and sentimentality.1 For Williams solidarity equals positive change
whereas service equals the paternalistic status quo.2 In this short essay I will
explore how this dialectic between service and solidarity in relation to
concepts and practices surrounding art forms that have prioritised an active
social dimension has been conceptualised in recent art theory. A socially
engaged or community based art practice is a current theme in discussions
around contemporary art. This subject is very broad so to lessen the
confusion I will look at just three distinct participatory approaches: dialogical
art, relational aesthetics and collaborative/collective art projects.
In the past 50 years, community based visual arts have emerged within
working class and marginal communities both here and elsewhere and are
now a well established set of practices aligned with the broad principles of
community development. While participatory arts in general are recognised
as an important tool in a bigger scheme of grass roots social empowerment,
a weakness in state supported community based arts activities, besides
inadequate funding, has often been the top down approach of sponsoring
agencies/institutions. In this familiar scenario artists are parachuted in and
out and little attention is given to long term engagement. In our age of
consumer orientated individualism, community, as Homi Bhabha reminds us,
is something you develop out of.3 Community can imply a herd like conformity,
a suppression of difference, or simply the ideal of individual freedom.
The Arts Council has dropped the once popular term 'community arts' for the
more neutral and arms length term 'participatory arts'.
Community, Bhabha outlines, is synonymous with the territory of the minority
and the discourses of community are themselves 'minority' discourses incommensurable
with the discourse of civil society.4 Community, he argues is the
antagonist supplement of modernity. It becomes the border problem of the
diasporic, the migrant, and the refugee. Community in this sense almost has
an atavistic resonance because it predates capitalism and modern society and
leads a "subterranean, potentially subversive life within [civil society] because
it refuses to go away".5 In this sense invoking community is at once to locate
a togetherness and paradoxically an estrangement from or antagonism to the
notion of a frame or limit to what constitutes a community. As Grant Kester
The community comes into existence […] as a result of a complex process
of political self-definition. This process often unfolds against the back
drop of collective modes of oppression (racism, sexism, class oppression,
etc.) but also within a set of shared cultural and discursive traditions.
It takes place against the grain of a dominant culture that sustains itself
by recording systematic forms of inequality (based on race, class, gender,
and sexuality) as a product of individual failure or nonconformity.6
There is, to follow Bhabha, Nancy and Pontbriand, a contemporary value
in the concept of community because it somehow evades the grasp of the
bundle of discourses which describe it and remains opaque to itself.7 As
In 'community' the personal relations of men and women appear in
a special light. They form part of the ongoing process which is only
partly organised in the wider social 'structure'. Whereas 'structure'
is differentiated and channels authority through the system, in the
context of 'community', roles are ambiguous, lacking hierarchy,
disorganised. 'Community' in this sense has positive values associated
with it; good fellowship, spontaneity, warm contact … Laughter and
jokes, since they attack classification and hierarchy, are obviously apt
symbols for expressing community in this sense of unhierarchised,
undifferentiated social relations.8
Indeed, while the definition of community resists empirical study and
interpretation there is something similar in the resistance to profit in the
community artwork which, because of multiple authorship/ownership,
remains unexchangeable and therefore economically unviable within the
traditional art market and auction houses.
Dialogical art or aesthetics is an umbrella term borrowed from Bakhtin and
Freire by Kester. Kester's work tries to give legitimacy and a sound theoretical
grounding to the alternative practices of community arts, recognising them as
new forms of cultural production. To paraphrase Kester's nuanced arguments:
dialogical art aims to "replace the 'banking' style of art in which the artist
deposits an expressive content into a physical object, to be withdrawn later by
the viewer, with a process of dialogue and collaboration".9 Community based
participatory art is a process led, rather than a product led, dialogical encounter
and participating entails sharing a desire to unveil or discover the power structures
of reality with a view to creatively imagining a contestatory and oppositional
platform where radical and plural democracy might take root. According
to Kester, and borrowing from arguments by Walter Benjamin, art is not a fixed
category/entity or thing, except that it reflects the values and interests of the
dominant class. For a host of art movements, especially avant garde ones,
their relationship with the dominant order is channelled through a dialectical
and often contradictory relationship where a specific and important discursive
system constructs art as a repository for values actively suppressed within the
dominant culture. "There is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows
it to play this role; rather, particular formal arrangements take on meaning only
in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frames, and preceding
So while the challenge art poses to fixed categorical systems and instrumentalising
modes of thought is important, it is not necessarily simply located
in the artwork itself as a discreet, bounded, formally innovative object. Rather
Kester argues that the tendency to locate this principle of indeterminacy solely
in the physical condition or form of the work of art prevents us from grasping
an important act of performative, collaborative art practice. "An alternative
approach would require us to locate the moment of indeterminateness, of
open-ended and liberatory possibility, not in the perpetually changing form of
the artwork qua object, but in the very process of communication and solidarity
that the artwork catalyzes".11 To uncouple the material form from social practice
is not as straightforward as Kester makes out because both are overlayed and
imbricated thoroughly in the history of Modernism.
For Kester, dialogical art is an approach that separates itself from both
the traditional non-communicative, mute and hermetic abstract modernist art
(Rothko, Pollock, Newman) and the more strident innovative heterogeneous
forms of shock based avant garde work (such as the Futurists, Surrealists and
Dada movements or the more recent examples of work such as Christoph
Schlingensief's public art project Foreigners Out!) designed to jolt the hapless
alienated viewer into a new awareness. Kester argues that both anti-discursive
traditions hold in common a suspicion about shared community values and
that 'art for the people' suggests an assault on artistic freedom, individualism
or even worse raises the spectre of fascism and Stalinism.12 While such fears
are grounded in history, in many peaceful and settled democracies not under
immediate threats from extreme ideology, the tradition of anti-discursivity,
isolation and negation still resonates in mainstream aesthetic practices.
Dialogical art, or conversational art as Bhabha termed it, foregrounds the
encounter and interpretation of the co-producers of the art work and as such
is against the traditional scenario where a given object or artifact produced
by an individual artist is offered to the viewer. Some examples for Kester of
solidarity orientated dialogical art include some of the work of WochenKlausur,
Suzanne Lacey, Hope Sandrow, Ne Pas Plier, Ultra Red, Maurice O'Connell
and the ROUTES project in Belfast in 2002. Examples of work closer to the
service or paternalistic end of the spectrum for Kester, include some of the
work of Alfredo Jaar, Fred Wilson, and Dawn Dedeaux.
For Kester there are just too many examples of institutional led community
based work by well known and established artists that reinforce
the neo Victorian view of a given 'disadvantaged' "community or constituency
as an instrumentalised and fictively monolithic entity to be 'serviced'
by the visiting artist".13 As Sholette has observed, "the avant garde promise
to drag art out of the museums and into life is today remarkably visible
in all the wrong places. Museums and foundations now claim to nurture art
as social activism".14
The criticism that participatory projects in the art world can be toothless is
clearly present in the critique of relational aesthetics by Bishop, Foster, and
more recently Martin.15 Relational aesthetics is a term coined by French curator
and writer Nicolas Bourriaud and relates to a diverse body of work made
by artists in the 1990s, such as Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Felix Gonzalez-
Torres, Vanessa Beecroft and Philippe Parreno, that foregrounds interactivity,
conviviality and relationality as the subject of its artistic practice. This social
rather than socialist turn is seen as a direct response from the privileged art
world to the increasingly regimented and technologically administered society.
Again like the theory of dialogical art there is little emphasis in relational
aesthetics on the art object as such and what the artist "produces, first and
foremost, is relations between people and the world by way of aesthetic
objects".16 There is a further similarity in that relational aesthetics rejects
the non-communicative strategies of autonomous abstract art that avoided
content like the plague. Bourriaud's argument is provocative and interesting
in that it sees art from a Marxist perspective as an apparatus for reproducing
the all encompassing hegemonic capitalist ideology, but due to the complexity
of the cultural sphere in the age of information there are slips and gaps
within the reproduction of the dominant ideology that can be exploited by
certain artists as creative heteronomous interstices. Hence while acknowledging
on the one hand institutionally supported contemporary art's complete
immersion in capitalist relations and submission to capitalist imperatives,
Bourriaud believes that relational art can, within this system:
create free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those
structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce
that differs from the 'communication zones' that are imposed on us.17
It is a French tradition to invest in art as a strategically resistant activity and
Sartre viewed the primary aim of art to challenge the established interests
within society, so Bourriaud's relational aesthetics sets itself in opposition to
the culture of commodified individualism. As Liam Gillick claims: his object
based work is only activated by an encounter with an audience. "My work is
like the light in the fridge, it only works when there are people there to open
the door. Without people, it's not art – it's something else stuff in a room".18
This is a common perception of the experience of theatre, where the audience
gathers and forms a body for the duration of the performed event. The
limits of this interactive empowerment of an audience community can be
seen in the marketable success of the individual signature of the international
artists associated with relational aesthetics. As Adorno observed about the
underlying use value of the exhibition, "the words museum and mausoleum
are connected by more than phonetic association. They testify to the neutralisation
of culture".19 Yet while Bourriaud celebrates the role of the artist as
a service provider he does caution:
Of course, one fears that these artists may have transformed
themselves under the pressure of the market into a kind of
merchandising of relations and experience. The question we might
raise today is, connecting people, creating interactive, communicative
experience: What for? What does the new kind of contact produce?
If you forget the "what for?" I'm afraid you're left with simple Nokia
art – producing interpersonal relations for their own sake and never
addressing their political aspects.20
Our current era is characterised as the era of the service led consumer economy
and many artists are now earning a modest income from the payment
of fees from cultural institutions for participating in exhibitions and other
activities including institution led participatory arts programmes like those at
IMMA or indeed temporary public art programmes funded by percent for the
arts schemes. As Sholette observes:
cultural tourism and community-based art practice must be thought
of as a local consequence of the move towards a privatized and global
economy […] the remnants of public, civic culture aim to make art
appear useful to the voting population as a form of social service
Collaborative/Collective Art Projects
Solidarity implies a different kind of economic relationship, something more
reciprocal and committed than financially dependent. Collaborative groups
are the final approach that I wish to consider in this discussion on participation
and the work they make "can raise complex questions about participation
among artists - not just issues of process (Group Material and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. operated by sometimes tortuously arrived-at consensus), but also of
credit and ownership".22 Celebrated art groups of more than two members in
the past 100 years include the Omega workshop, The Russian Constructivists,
Berlin Dada, the Situationists, Gutai, CoBrA, Fluxus, Art & Language, the Guerilla
Girls, the Black Audio Film Collective, Act Up, Gran Fury, RTMark, Critical Art
Ensemble, Paper Tiger and Temporary Services. With the exception of the writings
of Sholette, Gablik and edited publications by Thompson and Sholette and
Sholette and Stimson, contemporary work made by collaborative groups has
often failed to merit serious critical attention.23 Having co-founded and worked
with the collaborative groups Blue Funk, The Fire Department and 147, as well
as participating with the collective RepoHistory, I can speak from experience
that there are multiple challenges in group art making and art activism. Art collectives
are risky as sharing does not come easily to visual artists and the tacit
knowledge of one's practice can be difficult to communicate. Group formation
is interesting in terms of how a shared political position can motivate action
and organise a group to tackle an issue. A transitive relationship is implied in
making collaborative work and becoming engaged in the wider social and political
arena. Conversely the lack of artists' groups signals a lack of problematic
issues within the cultural/communal sphere or is it a sign of a more widespread
inertness where we have become what Agamben sees as "the most docile and
cowardly social body that has ever existed in human history?"24
Joining or forming a collaborative art group or collective may impoverish
you, but it is paradoxically good for one's individual identity and at least your
life expectancy. As our society dismantles most of the traditional groups like
the nuclear family for example and replaces them with consumer orientated
lifestyles, collective identity can re-value individual participation and self worth.
As Habermas has argued "a person can constitute an inner centre only to the
extent that he or she can find self expression in communicatively generated interpersonal
relations".25 In this sense, the agency to express solidarity or opposition
with the other, is significantly different to the relentless mass organisation
of our lives into stratified data banks, market segments, audiences, biometrics,
google accounts and biological samples, what Deleuze calls the administered
forms of collective control.
Judging work, be it dialogical, relational or collaborative on a scale from
solidarity to service asks of the reader to reflect on the social dimension of participation
and the material dimension of social practice from aesthetic/political
perspectives. The future that is mapped out in phrases like the 'knowledge
economy', 'virtual communities' and 'cultural industries' is a future that threatens
solidarity through corporate control. I hope artists, students, and audiences
at IMMA remain alive to dealing with these complex forces and engage with
what Williams generously believed art could be: a struggle at the roots of mind
to figure out an embodied sense of creative engagement with self-composition
and social composition.26
© Brian Hand, 2011
- Raymond Williams, Keywords, London: Fontana, 1988.
- Virginia Nightingale, Studying Audiences: The Shock of the New, London:
Routledge, 1996, p. 14.
- Homi Bhabha, 'Conversational Art' in Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson (eds.),
Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art,
Cambridge, Mass and London: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 38-47.
- Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.
- Partha Chatterjee cited in Homi Bhabha, 1994, p. 230.
- Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, California: University of California Press,
2004, p. 150.
- For this broad discussion see Homi Bhabha, 1994; Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative
Community, Trans. Peter Connor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991
and Chantal Pontbriand, 'Jean-Luc Nancy / Chantal Pontbriand: an exchange',
Parachute Contemporary Art Magazine, October 01, 2000, pp. 14-30.
- Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo,
London: Routledge, 1991, p. 303.
- Grant Kester, 2004, p. 10.
- Ibid, p. 90.
- Ibid, p. 90.
- Grant Kester, 'Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art'
in Variant 9, 1999.
- Grant Kester, 2004, p. 171.
- Gregory Sholette, 'Some Call it Art: From Imaginary Autonomy to Autonomous
- See Claire Bishop, 'Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics', in October, 110, 2004,
pp. 51-80; Claire Bishop, Installation: A Critical History, London: Tate Publishing,
2005; Hal Foster, 'Arty Party', in London Review of Books, 25:23, 4, 2003 and
Stewart Martin, 'Critique of Relational Aesthetics', Third Text, 21(4), 2007,
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 2002, p. 42.
- Ibid, p. 16.
- Liam Gillick cited in Claire Bishop, 2004, p. 61.
- Theodor Adorno quoted in Rubén Gallo, 'The Mexican Pentagon Adventures
in Collectivism during the 1970s', in Blake Stimson, and Greg Sholette (eds.),
Collectivism After Modernism, pp. 165-193, Minneapolis and London: University
of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 170.
- Nicolas Bourriaud, 'Public Relations', Interview with Bennett Simpson, Artforum,
- Gregory Sholette, 2001.
- Robert Atkins, 'Politics, Participation, and Meaning in the Age of Mass Media', in
Rudolf Frieling (ed.), The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, pp. 50-66, London:
Thames and Hudson, 2008, p. 58.
- See Gregory Sholette, 2001; Suzi Gablik, 'Connective Aesthetics: Art After
Individualism', in Suzanne Lacy (ed.), Mapping the New Terrain: New Genre Public
Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, pp. 74-87; Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette, (eds.),
The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life,
Cambridge Mass and London: MIT Press, 2004 and Blake Stimson and Gregory
Sholette (eds.), 2007.
- Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? California: Stanford University Press
2009, p. 10.
- Jürgen Habermas quoted in Peter Dews (ed.), Habermas Autonomy and Solidarity,
London: Verso, 1992, p. 38.
- Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977,