Explorations using Participation Art as a Device to Enable
 Spectator Involvement.

Mariaan van den Berg
18 May 2016
I see my role as an artist to create a physical space where involvement becomes a possibility. I want the spectator to see it, to look long enough at the work, to question and hopefully connect to it with their minds, experiences and own memories. In this paper, I discuss how I used Participation Art as artistic device trying to achieve my goal to involve others in my work. I will also think about how effective it was and look at other artists’ work for inspiration and to make a comparison possible while finding out what would work for me.
My world is filled with stories, fantasies, rituals and myths. I mix these up with the realities of the day by creating scenes in a space with mostly self-made objects. In many cases these objects remain sketchy-not fully developed or worked out. They function primarily as ‘props on stage’.
Increasingly the work of art is the expression of isolated contemporary projects which have their basis in a personal mythology for which the artist alone has the key to interpretation. Concealed, painted, freighted with particular psychic resonances, the object was also to be isolated and staged.” (Personal Mythologies),
I do not want to make “isolated staged objects” that only I can interpret, based solely on my own personal mythology! I would rather have others involved in it and decided to explore the idea of participation as an intention in my work by reading about it and looking at other artists’ work and then trying to implement it in my own practice. (I included this reading in my bibliography.)
 So how to di I make, display or stage my work in such a way that people will not only see it, but that they will be, or become involved in it, or even complete it? While exploring the term ‘Participation Art’, I discovered a lot about it in the writings of Clair Bishop who researched the historical roots of (activist) Participation Art and writes about how it is used today in contemporary practices. According to my understanding there were basically two mainstreams in Participation Art which is still visible in contemporary art today: Political/cultural activist acts, and the making of a sort of ‘Gezamtkunstwerk’.
In April 2016 I was doing an internship with the Curacao artist David Bade. As part of “The Wall- Europe by People” *, we were building an outdoor frieze next to the Scheepsvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. The aim was to involve the local residents to participate in the making of it by offering workshops. People did show up and I witnessed how they became part of the work and we saw the work ‘grew’ into a project. It was a pity that not more people participated even though it was advertised on a huge board (sponsored by the European Union). The artist steered the project, but was open to what the participants brought to it. The involvement of the ‘other’ had a visible influence on the work. One could argue that the resulting object was the physical evidence of that participation, which could be considered the artwork. The questions concerning who benefits and the authorship of the work, convinced me that for my purposes and the goal of this experiment, I would rather stay clear of this kind of participation, since the abovementioned issues can lead to division, rather than connection between the artist and the ‘participants’. Hito Steyerl said:
“-the paradigm of participation and generous contribution towards a commons tilts quickly into an asymmetrical relation, where only a minority of participants benefits from everyone’s input, the digital 1 percent reaping the attention value generated by the 99 percent rest.”
So how can I involve people without making them co-workers in my project? On two different occasions I tried two different ways of participation. I have to say here that the work very much dictated the kind of participation used, and it developed as an outcome, rather than a thought-out plan coming together.
I had this dream of being inside an artwork and I built a ‘3D –painting’ into a small space, which could be entered into by visitors to alter the space physically. By opening two different ‘gates’ in order to move through the space it was altered every time someone entered. People mentioned how they felt when they were inside, saying things like: “I felt safe, cozy,” but also “as if I was inside someone else’s mind or private thoughts.
I also tried to make people touch my work by involving classmates in a public exhibition to carry around one of my objects and offering it to visitors to touch and inviting them to also carry it around. Some people said they felt extremely embarrassed by the object, which was at the same time soft and huggable, but also erotically shaped and colored, evoking simultaneous pull and disgust and even manipulation!
Macedonian artist Mima Pejoska describes herself as “an introvert, dreamer and maker, but above all.... always curious to shift (our) perception to find the hidden layers of things around us.” She focusses on the sense of touch. Her work ‘Sensibles’** becomes almost poetic and the spectator touches the work by moving into and through, touching the objects which are displayed dangling from helium balloon strings. She manages to ‘involve’ the spectator in a very natural and ‘sensible’, unforced way. I think in both of my works, participation was not voluntary, but rather ‘forced’ in a way, especially when offering the objects to spectators. So I became conscious of how I allow or rather enable people to participate, by refraining from asking or telling them to become involved.
In the third work visitors could choose a ‘Telepathic Device” to assist them while contemplating the works in the ‘exhibition’. For me ‘the work’ was actually the temporary involvement when they walked around the exhibition and not the ‘props’ as I have become to think of the objects I make. The work was based on childhood memories picking avocados with my dad and siblings with the title: ‘This is not about avocado’s.” I hoped to share my memories mixed with daily confrontations.   By offering them a ‘Telepathic Device’ I wanted to make them aware of my intention and also assist them to free themselves to connect with the work while bringing their own memories and experiences to become part of the making of the work and even complete the work.
 I tried to offer the spectator the choice to refrain from participation and this is a very important aspect in my work- I do not want to act in an oppressive way. What does ‘involvement’ do to the visitors who are not part of the ‘spectacle’? Do they put themselves unconsciously or consciously into the same position as the ’Involved’ or does this create more of a distance from the work which could even be called detachment? Maybe it is also helping to make my work visible and memorable?
The comments afterwards made me realize that carrying a support-device was actually ‘doing’ something to the bearers. Comments: “It was my companion”, ‘“I felt part of the work”, “I felt like the Pope”, “It made me think of protesting”, “a parade”. It ‘worked’!
So I am thinking that my work ‘happens’ when someone becomes part of it, but it does not aim for physical change of the work or necessarily altering the objects. This involvement does not have to be visible, it could only happen in the mind. I want my ‘scenes’ to pull people in to make them think or feel something. It is not important for me to evoke them to feel or think anything specific, but that they do it.  The meaning of he work lies in the involvement of the specific participants, with their own memories, history and ideas, when presented with my ‘scenes’. I see my work here as an ‘action’ which makes me vulnerable, since I present my ‘otherness’  hoping that my openness would give the work sincerity and encourage others to be vulnerable too.

Action is analogous to discourse because, to make full sense of any action, one has to recognize that its meaning is distinguishable from its occurrence as a particular spatiotemporal event. Nevertheless, every genuine action is meaningful only because it is some specific person's doing at some particular moment. Paul Ricoeur, (Personal Mythologies)
I strive to present notions such as intimacy, otherness and alienation in a world where unity and universality have become the justifier of violence and intolerance in our established social and economical systems. (If you are not like me, I don’t like you!)
So I hope to ‘undermine’ the discourse that we are the same, that a ‘good understanding’ is possible. I rather want to admit that I don’t know you and that you keep surprising me. Striving not to assume that I know what you think or how you would react. I believe by admitting that we do not understand or know another, we can reach a place of mutual respect and experience others as a source of inspiration.

So my conclusion is that when Participation Art is used as an artistic device in an art practice, actual involvement by ‘others’ are not guaranteed. Though it is a useful method to draw people in who would otherwise stay passive and pass by untouched. The ‘magic’ of art happens not necessarily during physical participation, but rather when you allow yourself mentally or physically to become ‘involved’ in a work of art. Participation art helps to make people spend more time which creates a moment where ‘involvement’ as a choice, can possibly lead to new ways of thinking.

Ps: A possible interest arising from this paper could be the role of art as ’ healing or therapeutic device’ as used by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark and before her by Joseph Beuys.***


*This' participation' work is by David Bade (Curacao).THE OFFICIAL CULTURAL PROGRAMME

**“The Sensibles collection was presented in a empty white gallery in Savannah, Georgia... where all 150 pieces of sensible jewelry works were hanging from 150 transparent helium balloons floating around the space. The movement of the balloons made the atmosphere alive... and with each balloon movement the pieces followed and were touching the visitors, ‘flirting’ or waiting for someone to touch them while it is in the air. The materials and techniques for the jewelry pieces were carefully chosen to invite people’s touch. Rice, silk, crochet stainless steel... all delicately treated, implied on a certain level of fragility and tenderness, and with their unhurried moves up in the air were inviting approach with the same level of softness. Other pieces, made with silicone and with skin looking soft surface, were meant to stick to the visitors skin if they pass by it... and some pieces were deceiving with their looks showing off as gentle and light while later surprising with their roughness or heavy form. On the contrary of the expected and usual, the message of the event was ‘Please DO touch the artwork’.” Touh The Art”
***JOSEPH BEUYS (1921-1986)   
Beuys expanded the idea of art to reality as a whole. His ritual actions aimed to release the plurality of the senses. Art would have a therapeutic virtue and the artist would be akin to a shaman. Objects and materials linked to an entirely personal symbolism anchored in his biography were involved in an art with social aims in a sick society.
1 . Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Clair Bishop.
2. Participation (Documents of Contemporary Art), Clair Bishop, Copublished with Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
3. The Object: A Thing Like You and Me, Hito Steyerl, 2012, Whitechapel Gallery, London
Personal Mythologies
5. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ricoeur/#3.1Touch the art . 

6. http://dismagazine.com/disillusioned-2/62143/hito-steyerl-politics-of-post-representation/

9. http://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1096&context=gc_pubs

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