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.