On participation: The unpredictable subject

I was commissioned to write this short piece of writing by Blindside ARI for the catalogue that accompanied their Meet The Public Festival, a program of events that aimed to explore the limits of public participation in contemporary art practice held from 27 August to 6 September 2014. As this writing demonstrates some of my current thinking around participatory art practice, informing much of the work I am doing with Catherine, I thought it relevant to post it here as well.

It is a well known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just press the floor button without speeding up the process by pressing also the close-the-door button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process. We are all the time asked by politicians to press such buttons.

– Slavoj Žižek [1]

Genuine participation is the invention of that unpredictable subject which momentarily occupies the street, the invention of a movement born of nothing but democracy itself. The guarantee of permanent democracy is not the filling up of all the dead times and empty spaces by the forms of participation or of counterpower; it is the continual renewal of the actors and of the forms of their actions, the ever-open possibility of the fresh emergence of this fleeting subject.

– Jacques Rancière [2]

Above are two statements by contemporary philosophers that describe models of political participation in present day, liberal democratic regimes. One model of participation is described as fake, the other genuine. Although it is problematic to straightforwardly map forms of political participation onto artistic uses of participation, these two statements help us to conceptualise the different varieties of engagement available to us in contemporary society.

While artists and critics often equate participatory art with a democratic or liberating political potential, Žižek’s statement tells us that the call to participate is not inherently emancipatory or radical. In our present society, which has been described as post-political, we are constantly being prompted to participate – liking, sharing, commenting, submitting feedback, contributing to polls and focus groups, voting people off Big Brother etc. – and yet these activities, while giving the appearance of agency, are ultimately impotent.

Žižek, Rancière and other theorists of the post-political, argue that these managerial, consensus-seeking public engagement procedures reduce our political participation to predetermined terms and possibilities, limiting the extent to which disagreement and discontent can be expressed. As such, while many participatory techniques give us the feeling of having input, their ability to transform our present reality is delimited. Such participatory acts have a pacifying, placebo effect, but foreclose politics proper.

In June 2014, 15-year-old Tallulah was carried away by three police officers when she joined a protest against budget cuts and university fee deregulation in Melbourne. Photo credit: AAP/Julian Smith

Politics proper, as described by Rancière, requires a different, more radical kind of participation. This participation is not defined or foreclosed by the limited co-ordinates, framings and spaces offered by the dominant social order. Instead, this participation depends on an unpredictable subject who appears fleetingly at unexpected places and times, rejecting the normal roles assigned to people and places, and making a challenge to the status quo.

An example of the unpredictable subject is the artist who refutes the claim that they are best placed to respond to politics by making “critical art”, instead choosing to pull out of the Sydney Biennale. Or the 15 year-old high school student who joins protests against university fee deregulation. Such people momentarily exceed the roles assigned to them and do something beyond what we expect.

These examples of “fake” and “genuine” political involvement are not offered in order to define “right” and “wrong” artistic uses of participation. A reflection on these statements can, however, inform our understanding of participation in contemporary culture. Personally, I feel that much participatory art does feel like empty button pressing – artists ask us to engage and to share, but to what end? Conversely, I am inspired by the concept of the unruly and unpredictable subject, the person who surprises, who acts out and offers us new and unforeseen ways of occupying space and relating to one another.

Closed to the Public (Protecting space) at 2014 Melbourne Art Fair. Photo credit: IMG X Tom Teutenberg.

Closed to the Public (Protecting space) by Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan at 2014 Melbourne Art Fair. Photo credit: IMG X Tom Teutenberg.

The paradox is that an artist can’t necessarily produce or plan for this spontaneous subject in their work, as such a figure would likely refuse the directives of an artist or participate in a way that was not anticipated. This is the real tension and contradiction of participatory art: “genuine” agency cannot be created in advance by the artist. Participatory works can, however, create the setting in which the unpredictable subject—or, conversely, the unpredictable subject’s invisibility—can appear and be the object of our reflection.

[1] Slavoj Žižek, “Human Rights and Its Discontents”, a talk presented at Olin Auditorium, Bard College on November 16, 1999. Full transcript of the talk is available at: www.lacan.com/zizek-human.htm.

[2] Jacques Rancière, “The Uses of Democracy”, in Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, London: Verso, 2007, p. 61.

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