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: artnet.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: londonist.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: boumbang.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.