Tuesday, 24/2/2021

Notes on:  The social turn, collaboration and its discontents  “Artificial Hells : Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship”  (2012)

AuthorL Claire Bishop

(Notes: Alma Bakiaj, MA Fine Arts, Middlesex University London, February 2021)

Participatory art became very popular in the 1990’s with artists taking the art practice concept outside the traditional studio space. Participatory art is the art that brings people together, involve them to participate collectively and become part of the artwork itself. It privileges  process over a definitive image, concept or object. It tends to value what is invisible: a group of dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised conscious. (Bishop, Artificial Hells). So rather than an image or a concept being important, like in conceptual art or an object in traditional forms of art, participatory artworks value what cannot be completely grasped, e.g a group of people gathering and socialising in a gallery space.

Participatory art

  1. It changes the concept of the artist and produces ‘situations’: no more the brilliant individual  but a collaborator of a socially engaged  project. It’s like setting a stage for something to happen, with the artist being the director of social situations, but is no longer the brilliant genius who makes objects that no one else.
  2. It changes the concept of the artwork: no more static objects that can be shown in a museum or gallery, but a project or installation that is formed by people’s participation. This idea of art as a project became very popular in the 90’s and continues to be until today.
  3. It also changes the concept of the audience: rather than being a passive viewer in a museum or theatre, where they just sit and look at a work, now the audience becomes an active participant in the work.

When Rikrit Tiravanija invited people to participate in his ‘situations’, cooking Thai Curry in a gallery, the participants and their discussions were part of the work, they made the work.

There is a big theoretical question Bishop raises:

“Do you think that this is a binary opposition work? (passive viewers versus viewers entering into the work and being active). Or is there only a way in which a supposedly passive viewer is already in some ways active as a participant?”

The French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, which is Bishop’s key philosopher of her theoretical position, will argue that there is no real strict separation between passive viewers and active participants. Even the most passive viewers are using the work that they are seeing as a way to tell a story about their lives, even following along with a story as a way of being a participant.

Participatory art re-introduces the public within politics, culture, art making that give them in some way power over their lives, de-alieniating  themselves from what Guy Debord calls ‘the spectacle’. In the 1960’s, Debord critiqued the spectacle as a social space that is filled with images that condition us, that keep us numb and detached from our real lives, that will often tell us lies, that keep us sequestered in our own space and separated from reality, which would be outside the spectacle. Bishop’s view on participatory art is that “it re-humanizes society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumental instrumentality of capitalist production”. That simply means that the spectacle is a part of capitalist production that now has become an image economy or a media economy but nonetheless is still continues to alienate people and continues to show them something illusionary.

One of the most famous quotes from Debord’s  “The Society of the Spectacle” is:

“In societies where modern condition of production prevail, all of the life presents itself as an immerse accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation, real life has fallen into representation.”

In other words, simply being a viewer is something different than actually living the real life…as if our lives are now mediated by the images that we consume and we are a part of. We ourselves become a spectacle, we become spectularized and monetized, where our data, our personal information, the lives that we have formed online, can become more real than our actual lives. This book was written in the 1960’s, way before Internet, Facebook, Instagram and other social media arrived. That makes Debord one of the most visionary philosophers of the 20th century and “The Society of the Spectacle” the most relevant book of our times.

The idea of participatory art links us back to real life, real situations, keeps us away from these illusory online representations and reacquaints us with what it means to have social situations with actual living people outside the visual mediascape.

As mentioned above, Rikrit Tiravanija’s work is one of the most characteristic works of participatory art. The act of gathering and eating socially is the artwork itself. Socially engage works can be also found in other artists’ practice such as Superflex, a Danish collective of three artists who travel the world and work with local communities. “Guarana Power” is a project  that helps guarana farmers keep their autonomy and have control over their crop in response to the activities of the cartel of multinational corporations whose monopoly on purchase of the raw material has driven the price of guarana seeds downs by 80%, while the cost of their products to the consumer has risen. The result of their collaborations is an organic soft drink, the “Guarana Power”.

Another example would be Thomas Hirschorn’s “Gramsci Monument” . This project started in New York in 2013, which is a part of a series of monuments  dedicated to famous philosophers. It is located  at the Forest Hills housing complex in the Bronx. He built a DIY structure, like a community complex where people could go to eat, have access to internet, to the library, spaces for children, theatre, stage for musicians, conferences etc.

Moona Malik’s “Blessing of the Boad: River to River” (2020) is one of the latest participatory artworks that is situated in Battery Park in New York. The structure looks like a large metal paper boat. People are given directions online on how to make a paper boat, write their wishes on it, some type of inspirational prays of what they want the future to be like, under the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic crisis. Then they can go and drop their paper boat into this large metal boat. This is a different type of participatory work, instead of getting together all at once, people visit the boat at separate times.

And finally, one of the latest Banksy’s works in 2020 was to fund a boat in the Mediterranean which he named “Louise Michel”, after a French feminist of the 20th century . He read a story of an activist named Pia and he decided he will write to her, asking her if she can accept his offer to fund a boat and to support her work with rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean.  He wrote anonymously:

“Hello Pia, I read your story in the papers, you sound like a badass. I’m an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the immigrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy”

Although this was taken as a joke in the beginning, it was proved that it was more than real and at the moment, “Luise Michel” boat is floating around the Mediterranean sea. Banksy made a graffiti of a little girl and a heart shaped life preserve on the boat.

The artist only funded it, but it is still a participatory work because his involvement is a part of a bigger project. It is a wonderful act but it raises more problematic questions about contemporary society, politics and economy: Why is it that we live in a world that an artist can become a non-governmental organisation to find solutions about issues that should be solved by our governments? Why would this even be necessary? Are we getting the healthcare, the education, the social welfare we deserve or are the richer privileged and the poorer left to struggle alone?

These are not easy questions to answer, but perhaps our mission as artists of the 21st century can be visionary and missionary, get more  involved in our society, or speak about universal truths from the window of our studio.


Tuesday, 2/2/2021

Notes on: Cooking up the self: Bobby Baker and Blondell Cummings “do” the kitchen: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance

Author:  Lesley Ferris

(Notes: Alma Bakiaj, MA Fine Art, Middlesex University London, February 2021)

This study focuses on the solo performances of two artists, Bobby Baker and Blondell Cummings, both of which use their private space, the kitchen, as a canvas of their autobiographical work. Their own lives and experiences are a source material of their work. In their performances, everyday repetitive, monotonous gestures in the kitchen suggest that women are not only “merely playing themselves’’, they are also portrayed as resilient females with a voice, struggling to communicate to the world all those different roles they are loaded by nature and society. The kitchen becomes a living space of truth and memory.

For many centuries, the gendered space of the stage was male preserve. As actresses, women, socially and culturally, were associated with the inside space, the home and the silence. When they begun to perform their roles for the first time at the theatres in England of the 17th Century, their presence in the public stage threatened the dichotomy of the public/private space. Anti-theatrical prejudice increased and they became target of heated discussions about “woman’s” nature. The suitability in this previously male dominated profession was questioned and they were seen as unable to be artistically creative and that they are just “women playing themselves”. One of Goethe’s 1788 essays, “Women’s Part Played by Men in the Roman Theatre”, supports this misogynistic perception, suggesting that men can play women better than women do. One century later, in Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” (1881) this perception was supported. According to Nietzsche, women were “natural actresses”, a view that objectifies women’s nature by underestimating their ability to perform as strong as males were believed to perform. In this view, women are seen as incessant, inconsistent and instable. And this logic leads to another problematic conclusion: since working in theatre requires expertise in disguising (which males can perfectly and effectively do), and since women are natural dissemblers (as “disguise” is part of their nature), their disguise is not seen as a creative act, because this is their natural part of being a woman. Hence males are more talented in disguising and playing women’s roles and their act was seen as artistic since it took them effort and creativity to play a role outside their nature.

Cummings and Baker started their autobiographical performances in the 70’s and 80’s from their own kitchen, a place that was seen by men as of no significance. Baker’s performances are constructed from the details of her life as a mother, a wife and a home maker. It is a series of work she started after eight years of hiatus, because of her dedication to raising her children, while her husband, a photographer, kept being active in his profession. Her “Kitchen Show” problematizes the way we are able to read the woman’s body, as she takes on issues of “merely playing herself”. Her performances took place in the kitchen of her house in North London, a space suitable to accommodate 25 people. She offered her guests tea and coffee before her performances, wanting to make them feel like home while inviting them to her personal space and story. By the end of her performance, she was covered with a variety of kitchen utensils and objects, smeared with margarine and soaked with water. Her acts were intense and violent. Her kitchen space became a battlefield, sharing her fantasies of chaos and violence through monotonous and repetitive activities. She examines the routine of everyday domestic and social life. In one of her interviews she says that “…throwing things around releases some tension and it’s better than hitting someone…” For Baker, the kitchen is a site of constant work but also of memory and engaging fantasy. She turned the “misogynistic” notion of women actresses merely playing themselves into a work of art.

Blondell Cummings fused dance, theatre, mime, spoken word and video into quasi-narrative worlds. Her performance “Chicken Soup” (1981/1988) inhibits a range of characters: a mother, a nun, an aunt, a grandmother, paying tribute to the women of her life who were THERE before her. “Chicken Soup” was performed in her kitchen and it was a portrait of the life of the African American woman. While in Baker’s work marked BODY is served as a work of art, the body of the African-American artist is a source of MEMORY, a repository of private family history that she makes public. Through a mixture of controlled, precise rhythmic movements, Cummings evokes the kitchen table as a site for her family history held together by the presence of stories of women. Her work is complex and dense. Each gesture and movement evokes multiple meanings, giving the spectator the opportunity to participate in its interpretation. The particular power of her performances is the fusion of three modalities of gesture: the semiotic (signifying body), the instrumental (functioning body) and the immersive (experimenting body).

In the semiotic mode , the body constructs and communicates meanings through signs, language and other communication codes. In the instrumental mode, acts like slicing an apple, turning a wheel, the body is captured by a mechanic circuit (it becomes a mechanical apparatus). In the immersive mode, the body enacts, experiences itself through immersive or participatory activities such as beating a rhythm or dancing.

The story of Cummings tells the story of her own body situated in relation to her family’s female body that lived before her. This dialectic is played out by the positioning of her spoken text as a voice over. Her recorded voice marks a single role (herself), but her gesturing body enacts a collective role, that of her mother’s, her grandmother’s, her aunt’s. Her play is a kind of familial female chorus played in her single-voiced presence. She seems to physically call forth the presence of the women she remembers, flooding the small kitchen space with them. It’s like a fragmented storytelling in a moving photographic image, reminding Mariane Hirsche’s “Postmemory” study. Although Cumming’s work is different to photographs in terms of medium and topic, her body acts in a way similar to Hirsche’s photographic album.

Hirsche’s book “Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal trauma of those who came before, to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up. These experiences were transmitted to them so deeply that they constitute memories in their own right (Post-memories). In the same way, Cummings is documenting her life through imaginative creations of the women of her past, as she remembers them from them childhood from gatherings in the kitchen. She is generationally distanced from those women, yet they inform who she is and still live within her.

“Chicken Soup” portrays the dual nature of autobiographical performance in which one’s present tense is inseparable from one’s collective past.

Both Cummings and Baker present themselves to us as a single agent offering a variety of emotions, memories, meanings and resistances to the conventional image of domestic life. They both mark their bodies, Baker with literal objects and Cummings with physicalized movements. Such markings evoke us to witness constructions of gender, class, race and sexuality. Both performers give the lie to a culture that has made the idea “artist” and the concept of “woman” antiethical.


Tuesday, 26 January, 2021

Notes on “Symbiotic Posture of Commercial Advertising and Street Art”

Rhetoric for Creativity

Authors: Stefania Borghini, Luca Massimiliano Visconti, Laurel Anderson, John F. Sherry

(Notes: Alma Bakiaj, MA Fine Art, Middlesex University London, January 2021)

This study explores the potential effect of contemporary street art on commercial advertising practices, focusing on the symbols and meanings of visual rhetoric and cultural practices of creativity of street artists and advertisers. The multicultural research team included four major investigators and several assistants. They conducted their study between 2005-2008 in several cities in Europe and the USA.

Their research focused in the following cities: Milan, Pavia, Turin, Rome, London, Dublin, Brussels, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Phoenix and Minneapolis. They inquired street artists, passersby and public institutions using communication practices like: habitual presence, personal contacts, using information from key informants, snowball sampling and word of mouth. One of the challenges they faced was the issue of trust within the street art community. Because street art is illegal, they needed to build this trust with one or more members of the community, so they could be accepted in their network and elicit useful information for their study. They interviewed in total 12 key informant artists in Italy and 8 in the United States, as well as 60 consumers commenting on their experience. They also monitored multiple artists’ blogs, obtaining information on their activities, thoughts and critiques. In total, 800 pages of transcriptions were gathered, along with 58 pages of blogs on the internet, 450 photos and 15 hours of video recording.

They focus on seven key rhetorical practices:

1) Aesthiticazation of Functional Media

Urban Design is possibly the most remarkable example of aesthiticazation . All forms of street art aim to achieve higher levels of aesthetic performance and response. Some artists use functional and everyday (“useless” or “forgotten”) objects as a canvas to create playful works of art by giving them a new meaning and aesthetically transforming them (eg. Garbage cans, curbstones, asphalt).

2) Playfulness and Cheerfulness

Newer generation street artists borrow characters, subjects, forms, styles, shapes and colours from cartoon and comics in order to achieve a language characterised by playful and cheerful communication codes, giving rise to the “cartoonification” of urban spaces and turning them into “living places”. Very often their playful language sways between seriousness and humour, creating a mixture of meanings.

3)Manipulation of Meaning

Street art is multi-vocal and eclectic, borrowing contents from fashion, politics, pop art, music, advertising and marketing. To manipulate the meaning of the image, they use the technique of “Détournement” , taking old known images and “injecting” them with other images from other contexts to achieve surprising results, usually projecting their own perspective on the image depending on what they try to communicate. In a way, street art is as manipulative as advertisement. Artists chose shapes and themes to provoke viewer’s thoughts and emotions inviting them to participate. They both share the same interest in elaborating structures to inform and persuade their consumers, but the difference is that street art uses a more aesthetically refined and playful language than advertisement. This is where advertisement needs to apply this aesthetic value so they can influence consumers’ behaviour through enjoyment.

4)Replication of Symbols and Messages

One of the main communication strategies street art borrowed from advertisement was the rhetoric of mass-replication.  Street artists need to create distinctive and creative styles choosing repetitive themes, recurrent traits, personal logos and distinctive spaces. Replication is achieved through different levels of variations, establishing stimulation and memorability.

5)Stylistic Experimentation

Street artists are known to rebel against any conventional ‘’aesthetically correct’’ rules. They need to be unique and recognisable in public space by maintaining their anonymity at the same time. This allows them to experiment with different media and styles but also to interplay between work and its place, creating cognitive games. Stylistic experimentation involves audiences by means of replicability, desirability (breaches the barriers of audience’s attention), accessibility (easy code interpretation by appropriating well known artworks or images) and participation (interacting with the audience and challenging their perception by using familiar and entertaining images).  These communication codes of street art are some other remarkable strategies advertisement can borrow and incorporate in the search of socially inspired and effective communication.

6)Transfiguration as Restitution

When street art is ethically performed and is truthful to itself ( not vandalising the space), it is a transformative form of art. Forgotten dull buildings, uninspired hospital facades, garbage bins, stairs, shops’ iron gates, grey painted school walls, neglected and invisible buildings are visually reconstructed through beautiful, meaningful artworks. They take a life of their own and invite the audience to experience a better version of their reality. They invite them to explore their own city, the part of it that was not observed before.

Transfiguration is the opposite of “Détournement”, since transfiguration is not aiming to subvert the meaning of an image, rather than making the true meaning of an existing space visible.

7)Competitive Collusion

The creative factory founded by Warhol in 1963 can describe the way street art has replicated these behavioural codes. There can be antagonism between street artists, creating different form of confrontations but there is also an unwritten rule within the street art community saying that no artist has the right to destroy or overpaint the work of another artist. Street art can be seen as a living example of ‘’creative socialism”, where despite negation and legal reactions, there can also be creative competition, cooperation and partnership.


To conclude, we can say that what street art and advertising share in common is their attempt to communicate and persuade feelings and ideas. While advertising practices focus on  the one-way communication codes aiming to decrease consumers’ perceptual and cognitive resistance in order to increase their engagement to consumption attitudes, street art has an aesthetic approach to manipulating ideas and engaging their audiences in the process of “consumption”, using a rich variety of visual and conceptual  tools, unexpected and underestimated urban spaces, integrating arts, fashion, politics and advertising to create new visual realities from an activist’s point of view. Both street art and advertising share same cognitive and visual effects with the only difference that street art is not made for commercial consumption but to add enjoyment to existing uninspired real spaces, giving them new life and meaning.