The Artist in Control

Valerie’s Snack Bar, Jeremy Deller 2009 at Joy in People 2012. Image: Eddie Mulholland

Written by Rosemary Marchant

There has been a recent trend for par­ti­cip­at­ory or socially enga­ging works that allow the spec­tator to take a more act­ive role. They appear to have played a large part in encour­aging more people to enjoy art. The artists cre­at­ing these works are often cel­eb­rated for giv­ing up some of their artistic con­trol and let­ting the spec­tator dic­tate the out­come of the work. Marina Abramovic could not choose who she would sit across from in The Artist is Present nor could she pre­dict what people would do. Yoko Ono can­not con­trol what people write to place on her wish trees out­side her cur­rent show at the Serpentine and Jeremy Deller relied on volun­teers to run his cafe at his recent show Joy in People at Hayward Gallery London.

Rhythm 0, Marina Abramovic 1974. Image: ArtActMagazine​.com

There is a his­tory of artists claim­ing that they could not have pre­dicted the out­come of their works or the actions of the spec­tat­ors who par­ti­cip­ate. A prime example is Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 1974. In this piece, shown at MoMA, Abramovic stood in the gal­lery space for the dur­a­tion of the four hour per­form­ance. She invited the spec­tat­ors there to use the props and tools, that she had provided, on her in any way they wished. The res­ult­ing exper­i­ence affected all of her fol­low­ing works:

I still have the scars of the cuts,” she says quietly. “It was a little crazy. I real­ised then that the pub­lic can kill you. If you give them total free­dom, they will become fren­zied enough to kill you.”

What was the worst thing that happened?

A man pressed a gun hard against my temple. I could feel his intent. And I heard the women telling the men what to do. The worst thing was one man who was there always, just breath­ing. This, for me, was the most fright­en­ing thing. After the per­form­ance, I have one streak of white hair on my head. I can­not get rid of the feel­ing of fear for a long time. Because of this per­form­ance, I know where to draw the line so as not to put myself at such risk.” (Interview with Marina Abramovic, The Observer 03-​10-​2010)

The Artist is Present, Marina Abramovic 2010. Image: Artnet​.com

Abramovic had not pre­dicted that the out­come of involving the pub­lic in such away would have such an effect. She talks about the free­dom of the pub­lic and how more con­trol is needed over the actions of the spec­tator in such per­form­ances. After this per­form­ance Abramovic never gave over such con­trol to the spec­tator. She may not have pre­dicted the fero­city of the par­ti­cipants but it was she who cre­ated an envir­on­ment where people felt they were able to harm her with no consequence.

In 1850 Richard Wagner put for­ward his ideas for the ‘art-​work of the future’. Wagner believed that ‘Artists must recog­nize that the people, as an entity, are the only true artist..’(Boris Groys in The Genealogy of Participation Art, ed. Rudolph Frieling). Artists must be removed from their isol­a­tion from the people, caused in part by the desire to impress rich pat­rons, and real­ize that it is the people them­selves who make an art­work suc­cess­ful. Wagner wished to encour­age the form­a­tion of fel­low­ships between artistic genres. In this way he believed that artists could over­come the bound­ar­ies that he felt their isol­a­tion cre­ated. Artists such as Abramovic, Deller, Ono, Nauman and Willats, to name a few, con­tinue this idea of the artist becom­ing removed from their isol­a­tion. They do this through allow­ing par­ti­cip­a­tion in their work. Abramovic and Ono take this one step fur­ther by involving the spec­tator dir­ectly in their per­form­ances with them­selves. In Ono’s Cut Pieces 1964 and 2003 the spec­tator becomes part of the per­form­ance as they slowly cut away her clothes. In Abramovic’s The Artist is Present 2010 the spec­tator takes part in the per­form­ance not only through the act of sit­ting and gaz­ing at the artist but also through the time spent queueing.

Test Site, Carsten Holler 2008. Image: Tate Photography

But do these ideas and examples really show the artist as sac­ri­fi­cing their authorial con­trol over their work? And how much say does the spec­tator really have in the out­come? I would sug­gest par­ti­cip­at­ory and socially enga­ging works such as those I have men­tioned allow the artist more con­trol over the spec­tator than tra­di­tional medi­ums such as paint­ing. The artist has con­trol over the envir­on­ment and situ­ation that the spec­tator finds them­selves in. These dic­tate how the spec­tator acts. When Jeremy Deller builds a cafe run by volun­teers in the Hayward Gallery, offer­ing free cups of tea he is very obvi­ously try­ing to cre­ate a social envir­on­ment. Installations such as Carsten Holler’s Test Site 2008 at the Tate Modern a few years ago cre­ate strong reac­tion in vis­it­ors want­ing to take part. The artist has ini­ti­ated this reac­tion and it is the art­work that he has cre­ated that causes it not the decision of the spec­tator to take part.

Cybernetic Still Life, Stephen Willats July/​October 2009. Image: art​net​.com

The con­trol of the artist can be seen bey­ond install­a­tion, per­form­ance and par­ti­cip­at­ory works. Community artist Stephen Willats engaged res­id­ents of a tower block in his works of art. In com­munity works such as these those par­ti­cip­at­ing are con­sidered more as col­lab­or­at­ors than the spectator-​participant in a gal­lery situ­ation. They appear to have a more integ­ral part in the cre­ation of the work. But does this mean that Willats has relin­quished his authorial con­trol? No. He is the instig­ator, and as much as he may try the work that is cre­ated is still con­trolled by him.

Live Video Tape Corridor, Bruce Nauman 1970. Image: www​.repia​.art​.br

Bruce Nauman sug­ges­ted that install­a­tions such as his Live Video-​Tape Corridor 1970 cre­ate a situ­ation that lim­its the spec­tator so that they must do as the artist has wished. Nauman uses this to force the spec­tator to take his place as per­former in the work. Other artists use this to force the spec­tator to have a par­tic­u­lar exper­i­ence. Yoko Ono’s Amaze 2012 forces the spec­tator to con­sider the route they should take in order to not get lost. Miroslaw Balka’s install­a­tion How It Is 2011 in the tur­bine hall cre­ated a sense of blind­ness in the spec­tator so that they had to grope their way to the end.

Amaze, Yoko Ono 2012. Image: lon​don​ist​.com
How It Is, Miroslaw Balka 2011. Image: David Levene

Artists use many tech­niques to exert their con­trol over the spec­tator, some are as obvi­ous as instruc­tions on a wall -’ Yoko Ono and Erwin Wurm have both used this method. Some are more subtle such as the envir­on­ment and situ­ation cre­ated in an install­a­tion or per­form­ance. And oth­ers are less obvi­ous than these, a sculp­ture encour­ages the spec­tator to view it from dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives, to walk round and exam­ine it. A paint­ing can cause a spec­tator to come closer or move fur­ther away in order to view it.

One Minute Sculpture, Erwin Wurm, ongo­ing. Image: bou​m​bang​.com

I used to con­sider par­ti­cip­at­ory prac­tices a means for the artist to relin­quish some of their con­trol over their art, to allow the par­ti­cipant a sense of being a part of the cre­ation or out­come of a piece of work. However now I see par­ti­cip­at­ory and socially enga­ging prac­tices as a method for artists to have more dir­ect influ­ence on the actions, beha­viours and even thoughts of the par­ti­cipant or spec­tator. I am not sug­gest­ing that this is the aim of the artist, but it is a con­sequence of such prac­tices. Art has always been used to con­vey some­thing to the spec­tator; now this can be more than just an idea or an image. It becomes a phys­ical action, a desire to be a part of some­thing, per­haps even a desire to please the artist. The artist has, through par­ti­cip­at­ory prac­tices, removed him­self from the ‘isol­a­tion from the people’ that Wagner sug­ges­ted. But he has not dis­carded the author­ship of his work. His influ­ence over the work is as strong as it ever was, and his influ­ence over the spec­tator is even stronger.

About author:
Art Pit Guest
Art Pit Guest profile is dedicated for all our new writers, artists and people. Each of them gets his personal profile after he successfully has submitted 3 articles or projects to us. If we accept it, one gains individual profile with bio, picture and badges. However, we promote even new people who just joined our community, adding them to this c... Read further >
This entry was posted in Visual
Your Comments Go Here Read it - Spill it
If you dear