Art & Development

The Art of Participation, one year later

A year ago, I wrote a review of The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at the SFMOMA. Publishing can be capricious; my review was never published… until now.


There is a lot to see, touch, hear, speak into, wear and click in The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, a large-scale overview of participatory art. The museum is pervaded with a friendly, relaxed tone. Instead of compelling visitors to be on their best behavior, the audience is encouraged (and instructed on nearly every wall label) to participate as much as possible. The show is contingent upon visitors’ participation, which paradoxically, may be hampered by years of the museum’s Do Not Touch conditioning.


A historical section — mostly artifacts and documentation — make up about a third of the exhibition. It’s here where visitors encounter John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), the infamous note-less composition of ambient sounds, and the curatorial cornerstone of the exhibition. Cage’s concept of indeterminacy, or openness to chance or change, can be seen throughout, to varying results.

The historical section is a good introduction to participation-based art, starting with a display case of Fluxus books and ephemera. Videos by Abramović/Ulay, Yoko Ono and VALLIE EXPORT form a crash course in in-your-face Feminist performance art. Also included is the seminal media work, Kit Galloway’s and Sherrie Rabinowitz’ Hole in Space (1980); the delight of participants who encountered the unannounced bicoastal videoconference is quite infectious.

Hands-on pieces by Lygia Clark facilitate sensory interactions. The tender yet terrifyingly surgical Dialogo Oculos (1968/2008), for example, is a pair of modified goggles set face-to-face, mediated by a pair of small mirrors. It’s a goofy invention that piques an irrepressible curiosity.

Not all objects can inspire wonder and interaction so readily, as Clark’s Rede de elástico (Elastic Net) demonstrates. First, viewers are instructed to tie an oversized rubber band to expand a large net-in-progress. How and why one should participate is self-evident: small contributions create a tangible result. Second, viewers are invited to interact with other people using the net. This is a more demanding request and the payoff is uncertain.


Rede de elástico suggests two forms of participation. The lower level of participation—specific instructions for fleeting interactions—is often more comfortable, and draws a wider pool of participants. But prolonged, indeterminate engagement—such as those requiring interactions with strangers—requires investment and risk, so participants self-select. In return, these artworks are more generous with shared authorship and the potential for surprise and transformative experiences.

In a wall text, curator Rudolf Frieling cites the democratic potential of “the internet mindset.” Yet the problems of online communities—anonymity, unaccountability, unleashed base impulses—undermine many works, on- and offline, in The Art of Participation. Indeterminacy allows for connection, at the risk of vulnerability to abuse or disregard.


Many projects in The Art of Participation fall into the easy, popular category: artists creating interfaces for soliciting and aggregating single contributions (a sound, image or action). For example, c a l c and Johannes Gees’ communimage (1999–present) is a web-based mosaic made of user-uploaded images. The contributions are predictably low-brow: sexy profile pics, porn and opportunistic URLs. The almost decade-long mosaic-in-progress may be a historic Web 2.0 experiment, but there’s little at stake and the aggregation seems inconsequential. As does Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Mike Bennett’s Bumplist (2003), an email list with a finite amount of subscribers, so new subscribers “bump” old subscribers off of the list. In a medium rife with trivial time-sucks, what’s one more exercise in futility?

Beauty, unfortunately, does not inoculate a project from vulgarity. For example, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Microphones (2008) consists of 20 vintage microphones arranged in a circle at the center of a large, darkened room, while hidden equipment records and plays back participants’ vocal input at random. Theatrical lighting lends a magical aura, but it’s not enough to deter viewers from contributing comments like “Yo, I like pussy” and “Mark’s not going to make it because he said the parking’s too hard.” Lozano-Hemmer shared the authorship of the content with viewers, but generosity does not always beget gratitude.

In essence, these high-tech installations function like community bulletin boards detached from their civic use-values. When participants have little to gain and nothing to lose, is it any surprise that their off-the-cuff contributions may be less considered, and more reflective of their social or anti-social tendencies or attitudes about contemporary art?

In some cases, participation with these bulletin boards seems too depersonalized, as in the case of HUQQUH (2008) by Ant Farm. The venerable new media and architecture innovators created a media time capsule. Visitors can download media from their digital devices to a customized van. But I raised my expectations after viewing Elizabeth Federici and Laura Harrison’s Ant Farm: Early Underground Adventures with Space, Land and Time (2008), which shows Ant Farm touring counter-culture landmarks and conducting live video feeds in the 1970s. I’m usually immune to the hippie brand of romantic transcendentalism, but I was moved by the urgency and on-the-ground exchange of their earlier media van. In comparison, HUQQUH seems like an inert repository for documenting media consumption. I can’t imagine that, after driving an art-car through a pyramid of burning TVs (in Media Burn, 1975), Ant Farm had Family Guy vodpods in mind. To be fair, this opinion may be premature—HUQQUH is a time capsule, so the work may not be ‘complete’ for another three decades.


On the other end of the participation spectrum are works that demand prolonged, indeterminate engagement among self-selected participants. These works can be generous while they also complicate questions of authorship and responsibility.

1st Public White Cube (2001/2008), by Blank & Jeron and Gerrit Gohlke, is a gallery-within-the-museum. The artists commissioned other artists (the Los Angeles-based collective 10lb Ape) to create an installation (what looks like yet another spectacular found junk installation/shed by psychedelic youth). The right to alter 10lb Ape’s installation was sold to the highest bidder on EBay—this week, local artist Tim Roseborough, who simply pinned unremarkable photographs of the installation to the wall. Blank & Jeron and Gohlke are probably making a point about commodification, but like the installation, the conceptual meta-project seems in need of editing.

If that project is an experiment in value, Jochen Gerz’ The Gift (2000/2008) is an expression of generosity, and a more elegant and resolved artwork. Gerz’ project involves arranging young photographers to shoot thousands of black and white portraits of museum visitors. Selected portraits will be installed in the highly trafficked second floor landing, and printed in the S.F. Examiner. At the close of the exhibition, the artist will re-distribute the portraits as original works on permanent loan from SFMOMA. Gerz turns museum visitors into subjects (who form a diverse counterpoint to Harrell Fletcher’s and Jon Rubin’s Pictures Collected from Museum Visitors’ Wallets, 1998, humorously disarming studio portraits of American archetypes: the stern father, the guileless graduate) as well as collecting recipients. By the looks of the long line, visitors were quite enthusiastic about sacrificing privacy for a little fame and free stuff. What they might not know (spoiler alert!) is that there’s no guarantee that participants will receive their own portraits. Recipients will have to exchange their photos on their own—the photographs facilitate new social interactions. Gerz’ project enacts author Lewis Hyde’s idea: the work of art is like a gift, which accrues value with circulation.

While there are numerous internet-based projects in the show, the one with the broadest potential is Dan Phiffer and Muson Zer Aviv’s, “a browser plug-in for annotating, editing, and shifting the web.” The plug-in allows users to post notes, reconfigure text, swap images and edit code on any existing web page—personal, institutional, or corporate. It’s liberating and exciting—like leaving secret messages in public—with a lot of Web 3.0 potential because it adds a new layer, not just a new site, to the entire Web. ShiftSpace exemplifies how the best participatory art helps users re-think paradigms.


Erwin Wurm illustrates his challenge to the static-gallery paradigm by turning the gallery into a public theater where viewers can become actors. On the stage-like plinth, anyone can enact One Minute Sculptures by following the casually handwritten instructions and sketches and using the props. The One Minute Sculptures are essentially childlike ways of exploring the laws of the physical world, constituting a form of art-as-play. Two elements seem to shape participation: youth and critical mass. On a slow weekday, the plinth seemed like an intimidating stage—visitors shied away. On a busy weekend, the threshold’s visibility was in inverse proportion to visitors’ ages. Children readily became actors as parents became audience members. Young adults also took up the sculptures—demonstrating either youthful bravado or genuine comfort with hands-on art.

Least visible in the galleries and most radical in form, Janet Cardiff’s handheld camera-guided walking tour, The Telephone Call (2001), offers individuals a poetic one-on-one experience. Participants borrow a consumer-grade video camera and headset loaded with a pre-recorded video, in which Cardiff directs participants on tour of SFMOMA. Footage of the galleries and hidden spaces are spliced with narratives, memories, and other scenes, lending a peculiar sense of spacial and temporal dislocation. Cardiff manages to touch upon themes of subjectivity, eavesdropping and surveillance, while also making participants feel secure, as viewers are hidden in plain site in the guise of tourist. The result is a pleasurable, private experience that leaves a lingering sense of heightened perception.

In 1969, Allan Kaprow orchestrated a live, closed circuit broadcast at four sites in Boston, in a happening called Hello. Each location was equipped with cameras and monitors. Participants excitedly called out to one another:
“Hello! I see you! Can you see me?”
“Hello, Jim.”
“Pike — where are you? I can’t see you!”

The participants delighted in identifying others in the monitors. Seeing, however, was accompanied by a secondary concern—being seen, acknowledged, broadcast: I see you! Can you see me? By making participatory art, artists are seeing and acknowledging the viewers by providing a broadcast platform—a TV, a stage, a microphone, a gallery, the Web itself. But a broadcast platform only amplifies a voice. The output is only as meaningful as the input.

The Art of Participation includes work by: Abramović/Ulay; Vito Acconci; Francis Alÿs; Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier and Bruce Tomb (former members of Ant Farm); John Baldessari; Joseph Beuys; Blank & Jeron and Gerrit Gohlke; George Brecht; Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Mike Bennett; John Cage; c a l c and Johannes Gees; Janet Cardiff; Lygia Clark; Minerva Cuevas; Maria Eichhorn; VALIE EXPORT; Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin; Fluxus Collective; Jochen Gerz; Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz; Matthias Gommel; Felix Gonzalez-Torres; Dan Graham; Hans Haacke; Lynn Hershman Leeson; Nam June Paik; Allan Kaprow; Henning Lohner and Van Carlson; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; Tom Marioni; MTAA (M.River and T.Whid Art Associates); Antoni Muntadas; Yoko Ono; Dan Phiffer and Mushon Zer-Aviv; Raqs Media Collective; Robert Rauschenberg; Warren Sack; Mieko Shiomi; Torolab; Wolf Vostell; Andy Warhol; Stephen Willats; and Erwin Wurm.


Wunderflator, Junk Spaces, Hunger, Drucker

Life in California is pretty great.

Yesterday I drove down to Stanford University for Wünderflater, the MFA show by Reed Anderson, Michael Arcega, Kazumi Shiho, Cobi van Tonder and Jina Valentine. Palo Alto always strikes me as a surreal idyll, but the cool breeze, setting sun and beautiful arty people had me savoring my good luck of living in California. I might have lingered a bit too long, though, as my time inside the exhibition was too brief. Still, the inflatable structure containing a room displaying studio detritus made a lot of connections, which I haven’t yet all sorted out…. The inflatable reminded me of Ant Farm’s early inflatables, which were meant to radicalize architecture, though I was told that the inflatable in Wünderflater is meant to evoke a dream scene, which it does in a metaphoric, rather than theatrical, way. The detritus reminded me of Goldsmiths’ Professor Irit Rogoff’s comment at Global Modernities at Tate Britain that much of the Nicolas Bourriard-curated Triennial was about the re-presentation of junk spaces. For example, Bob and Roberta Smith’s installation combines hand-painted signs literally with junk that would turn up on Bob Smith’s street corner, and Franz Ackermans’ de-constructed installation about immigration and borders was strewn with flags on the ground. I thought that for the MFA grads to refuse to show spectacular, finished, marketable work — their “brands” in the art worlds — is pretty courageous and really interesting in the context of thinking about the hangover of overproduction in a globalized manufacturing system.* And strangely recursive and shockingly straightforward at the same time — exhibiting the objects (that exist directly in the world) that are banal and yet inspiring for the creative process of making more objects to exist in the world… It may not be the most earth-shattering show ever, but it evinces a really interesting sequence of ideas and actions…

[*Likewise with Weston Teruya‘s work at Patricia Sweetow Gallery — sure, the works on paper are these human-less narratives of ecological disaster, yet the pictures are populated with the signifiers of consumption/overconsumption… of maybe sea garbage washed ashore, adrift without nationality and mortally banal in their ubiquity.]

During the after-party (which was kindly serviced by a taco truck and tamale ladies: brilliant!), I got a peek at the amazing, huge studios. It looks like each MFA grad gets their own studio building. I was agog. It made me want to go to Stanford for another MFA. After the brief flash of jealously passed, I added the vision of a luxuriously large, comfortable studio in a wooded grove to my new found hunger. Since I’ve been back from the Breathe Residency, I’ve been living more intently and intensely, filled with this urgency to go for it, to get what I want — to be an artist all the time, not just for as long as I can afford it, or dependent upon deadlines / external validation. To just live it. To be hungry, to be unstoppable, like Pacquiao.

If you’ve read the blog before you probably know I’ve got a healthy obsession with artist and theorist Johanna Drucker. In addition to my good fortune of living in beautiful Calfornia, I’m also happy to share the good fortune of hearing Drucker deliver a keynote address for an event affiliated with an exhibition I’m in. It’s coming up on Wednesday, and I would wager a pretty penny that you won’t be sorry if you take the time to come out to Santa Clara for it.

Tactical Digital Aesthetics
Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 6:00-8:00 p.m., free
An evening of art and conversation exploring new media, remediation, and cultural politics. Keynote by Johanna Drucker; roundtable by Ray Beldner, Stephanie Syjuco, Anthony Discenza, and Johanna Drucker; and moderated by Katie Vann and Kathy Aoki. Co-sponsored by the de Saisset Museum; the Public Engagement Program of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society; and a SCU Technology Innovation grant.

Art & Development

some art highlights

First Thursday openings in San Francisco. Some highlights:

Lynn Hershman Leeson
Ant Farm
Gallery Paule Anglim

Cheers to Anglim for consistency: local notables, nice work, a smartly paired exhibition.

Leeson, of course, is a significant figure from early Feminist Art, has been in and around San Francisco for decades, and has continued to make new work in new media. I really loved her museum show at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, which showed off her facilities in multiple media. At Anglim, she’s showing mostly large, impressive photographs of a female mannequin with a look of surprise; the mannequin has also been placed behind a digital projection of Manet’s Olympia, and there’s also a wholly digital, multivalent media presenting another female avatar. The odd, cold distance between viewer and subject (mannequin, avatar) is an important part of the work, so there’s lots of “meta-” to mull over.

Detail of slides at Ant Farm show (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail of slides at Ant Farm show (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail from drawing/print on vellum by Ant Farm (Gallery Paule Anglim)

Detail from drawing/print on vellum by Ant Farm (Gallery Paule Anglim). Text: As if to steer the future.

In the small room, Ant Farm presents fantastic dreams of a media van via architectural prints/drawings on vellum, with some supplementary media (such as digital photo collages and a completely conceptually honest lightbox displaying slides from 1977-78, when Ant Farm initiated their first van project). Of course, the van itself will be on view at SFMOMA (whose site has finally undergone a cleaner, crisper re-design) in The Art of Participation exhibition, which opens Nov. 8. It’s great to see how these art elements take form in the public sphere after seeing the van in production for months at the building next door to my studio.

David Huffman at Patricia Sweetow Gallery

David Huffman at Patricia Sweetow Gallery

David Huffman
Jefferson Pinder
Patricia Sweetow Gallery

Another nice pairing of good art!

I never met David Huffman, though our stints at CCA overlapped quite a bit: me undergrad, Huffman grad; me grad, Huffman professor. So I’ve seen his work a bunch. His ‘bots continue to evolve, and his paintings are staying a few astral steps ahead of those of many Bay Area painters. In this exhibition, washes of paint and glitter verge on sublime, still, they’re paired with tightly rendered, pointedly racial people, places and things, such as the pyramid of watermelons in the picture above. In lieu of a firsthand account of the artist himself, I offer in congratulatory spirit this favorable account of the painting professor’s words: “You’re a painter! You have to be a vampire of paint!” For sure! The teacher shows an insatiable drive to forge ahead…

Jefferson Pinder covers his photogenic face in shaving cream — a whitening-out reversal of Zhang Huan’s self-drenching in ink — in a series of self-portraits with butoh-like results. In fact, an Asian stringed instrument accompanies the riveting video of still images of the whitened-out artist behind a projection of a rocket launch. The juxtapositions are quite tense, and result in some brilliant images captured in additional photographs. It’s an interesting bridge between video, photography and performance, with much in kinship with experimental theater that incorporates video, like the work of Sarah Kraft and David Szlasa.

Vik Muniz
Rena Bransten Gallery

Gilson inspects a photograph of a paper cut by Vik Muniz (Rena Bransten Gallery)

Gilson inspects a photograph of a paper cut by Vik Muniz (Rena Bransten Gallery)

Awe-inspiring. Muniz makes pictures out of food, garbage, and now, puzzles and cut paper. The sheer feats of craftsmanship are engaging, and the photos perfectly executed. The prints have an uncanny depth. As Gilson pointed out, it’s a common art school assignment to make a collage from gray paper or found objects. But Muniz proves that you don’t have to be the first one to do an idea, you just have to do it best. I’m starting to wonder what can’t he do?



There were also some nice pictures by Richard Avedon at Frankel Gallery, rare perfections from Life Before Photoshop. The Dustin Fosnot show at Steven Wolf Fine Arts was poetic, edited, and personal — in contrast with his last, which was quirky-quirky-quirky. I find pathetic art appealing. Ironic, distanced pathos is common and easy, but the new Fosnot pathos is restrained, uncomfortably intimate.

I missed two shows that are probably good — Diem Chau at Mark Wolfe Contemporary and Tiffany Bostwick at Gregory Lind — but I was already crossing Market and going back in time to 111 Minna, which manages to be forever young. At their group show of figurative painters and draw-ers concerned with fauna, I saw old friends with new beards. So goes 2008.