Participatory art fails. It fails first because you’re not there—if you’ve missed a narrow interval of space and time then what you get is just the story of someone else’s participation. It’s already a fantasy, a myth. It may be interesting and it may be art, but it’s not participation.
Even when you’re in the right place and time, participatory art fails because art fails: too often nothing actually happens between a work and its viewer. We are so many strangers walking the streets of the city, hardly glancing at one another. Participatory art makes these non-connections register in the body of participants. It makes the failures of art obvious.
Participatory art fails, too, because it hopes: its claims are grand and its achievements subtle. Its aspirations are high: no less than a total revolution—political, social, personal. The painting and sculpture of the present play down these old-fashioned dreams, but we all know that’s just to protect everyone involved from a pre-ordained disappointment.
The current critique of participation piles insult onto these failures. It argues that participation pretends to a radical democracy, a transformation of relations, but is really just another system of control. Participation wants agreement and consensus, it wants you to have a good time at its party, but true democracy (so this line of thinking goes) is a cacophonous un-party of antagonism and dissensus. In a related stab, participatory art simply sucks as art, precisely because it downplays antagonism and dissent, and then it tries to distract from its artistico-aesthetic deficits by pointing towards its effectiveness as a political or social therapeutic. It may not be good, but it is good for you.
Let us in our imaginations allow all this critique and disappointment to raze participatory art to the ground. Let us do away with it along with the other outmoded utopias. We live now in a world so saturated with the engagement (post, snap, tweet, comment, yo) that even commenting on that situation has become superfluous. We might think of ourselves as in a post-participatory condition. In mood, there is little hope. Change occurs as fitfully as it always has. Personal transformation passes through us convulsively, but cure eludes.
If we destroy as much as we can, oddly, the sense of possibility pokes back up, stems of quackgrass in the rubble of a vacant lot. Pretty soon we have a post-apocalyptic grove of frondy locust trees to contend with. There is something stubborn and persistent that remains, some reason that people keep trying to do this impossible thing.
Participatory art survives and not just on the margins. The less hope we have for art’s political and social efficacy, the more hyper-optimistic work appears and proliferates, under new names and old: Durational Performance, Neo-situationism, Intervention, Social Practice, Socially Engaged Art. Sometimes it’s just called “art.” Often it takes the form of “projects” which try to escape claims in relation to art history or art discourse.
Whatever we think of its chances, participatory art is an explicit antidote to the extreme narcissism of the ordinary material work of art. Walking through white cubes it becomes obvious that the expensive celebrity objects in our museums and galleries do not need us. That’s what they proclaim in their serenity and their stillness. They exist outside of time, complete unto themselves. We are patient before them, ready to be affected, but we cannot affect them in turn. Landscapes shimmer, the depicted stare out, bodies present themselves for our gaze. But the artwork fundamentally doesn’t care whether we are moved or indifferent, aroused or disgusted. It doesn’t even care if we look at it or turn away. It is unchanged by ignorance, by knowing little nods, by crowds of swooners, by expert dismissals. It sails on through time, accepting its preservation, its custodial care, as its due.
In fact, this very lack of engagement can be what makes artworks of this kind compelling. As Freud suggested in his early remarks on narcissism: “The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey…. It is as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind—an unassailable libidinal position which we ourselves have since abandoned.”
At the pinnacle of the artwork’s narcissism you might place Minimalist art, the geometric and reductive work that rose up in the sixties as one response to Abstract Expressionism’s self-heroics. No expression, no story, no pretense of communication. Perhaps surprisingly, this is one of the kinds of art I particularly enjoy.
So you find me walking through an upper floor of the Jewish museum in the closing days of the show Other Primary Structures. It’s a remake/remix of the Jewish Museum’s 1966 Primary Structures, itself an iconic exhibition which helped define Minimalism. Other Primary Structures is both homage and critique; curator Jens Hoffmann’s gathering of rival works from parts of the world neglected in the original.
Though I’ve always “liked” minimalism, I find myself walking a little too quickly through the halls of austere geometries, feeling as if we have nothing to say to one another, when suddenly an invitation to touch stops me with a jolt of pleasure. On a table I discover a group of Lygia Clark’s Bichos, asking to be played with.
Lygia Clark (1920-1988, Brazil) was one of the great pioneers of participatory art. In her work you can find all of the grandiose optimism and experimental verve that continues to inspire younger artists. You could call her a stubborn seed that keeps falling on new ground and taking root, or better, a rhizome.
Clark, along with several contemporaries in the influential Brazilian Neo-concretist movement (Amilcar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissmann, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim and Theon Spanudis) argued for an art that was “always in the present, always in the process of beginning over,” an art which brought back “a primal—total—experience of the real.” Beginning in 1960 with her series of Bichos (beasts), she made the leap from ordinary geometric abstraction to objects meant to be handled directly by the viewer.
A Bicho consists of metal panels in geometric shapes, hinged together to allow for movement and reconfiguration. A complex Bicho might contain twenty or more panels. They can vary in size from child’s toy to the monumental: the ones in front of me at Other Primary Structures are sized somewhere between a coffee table book and a pizza box. According to Clark, she called them Bichos (variously translated as “beast,” “animal,” “creature,” or “critter”) because their hinges seemed to her like spinal columns, and because they come alive in the hand.
I pick up a Bicho and start turning it this way and that; this one is Caranguejo Duplo (Double Crab, 1960) a complex interlinking of aluminum triangles. Next to it is Bicho – Em Si (Critter in Itself, 1962) with large circle segments as well as triangles, and finally Monumento a Todas as Situações (Monument to All Situations, 1962) divided quadrilaterals with no right angles. They all are covered with subtle scratches where the metal rubs against itself as the pieces are moved. On some there are concentric rings that mark habits of play. One of Clark’s Bichos recently sold at auction for 1.2 million, so it is not surprising that these are reconstructions that have been made for visitors like me to interact with.
Creak and creaking. Clack, clack and clatter. Groan. What surprises is the sound. The Bicho‘s aluminum panels are cool in my warm hands; if it is an animal, it lacks mammalian warmth, but its coolth seems lively, active, alive.
I’m playing, or I’m trying to play, but awkwardly. I’m trying to play, but the impulse keeps stuttering. I’m going through the motions of interacting, self-consciously standing there with my back to the guard who is surely keeping an eye on me. How long am I supposed to do this?
The flat metal segments of the Bichos are joined by hinges that move freely in one direction but not the other. The pattern of these hinges makes the panels catch or swing around unexpectedly as you move them. You push the Bicho one way and it resists, another and a whole part of the sculpture flops over, swinging around with a flap and bang. I jump, embarrassed. Bicho – Em Si is the most aggressive, it argues and slaps. Gradually, I get better at moving with all of them, and even the Caranguejo begins to take on a balletic action, stepping up on the points of its triangles.
“In the relationship between you and the Bicho there are two types of movement,” says Clark. “The first one, made by you, is purely external. The second one, made by the Bicho, is produced by the dynamics of its own expressiveness. The first movement (which you make) has nothing to do with the Bicho, because it does not belong to it. In compensation, the conjugation of your gesture with the immediate response by the Bicho creates a new relationship and this is only possible due to the movements which it knows how to make: this is the life of its own of the Bicho.”
Simply by allowing contact and interaction, Clark breaks the frame that surrounds the canonical artwork (painting, sculpture) with a force-field of touch-me-not. In that very untouchability, works of art have occupied a position of power not unlike that of royalty. The analogy might be to Polynesian chieftains whose status is preserved by a system of intricate prohibitions; the more mana or magical power in a person has, the less they can touch and be touched. If the taboo (tabu, kapu) isn’t kept, power is thought to leak away.
Clark and other participatory artists are part of a long tradition of demystification—of deliberate attempts to destroy the mana of the work of art by treating it casually, and in so doing to destroy the political gradient between the work and the viewer. In this way, participatory art aims to change the deep structure of the art experience.
To the extent an artwork signals its hierarchical relation to the viewer, to the extent to which it is considered more valuable (financially, absolutely) than the viewer, the form of relation it offers can overwhelm any subversive “content.”
Clark’s Bichos, by demanding touch and rearrangement, propose that art can move from icon or totem to toy. A toy acts intimately. A toy does not and cannot rule its player. It can only invite. As Johan Huizinga suggested in his classic Homo Ludens, play is a free activity. “Play to order is not play: it could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”
This, in potential, gives another register to my self-consciousness and my failure to fall immersively into play with Clark’s Bicho. Between me and the Bicho is a question, a field of possibilities. It is precisely in uncertainty, in the possibility of saying no, or being unable to play, that the desire for real relation can be discovered.
I go in search of more Bichos downtown, where a big Clark retrospective has just opened at MoMA: Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988.
The first thing I see, projected outside the exhibition space on MoMA’s 6th floor, is the image of Clark walking on a beach, looking oddly old-fashioned, even matronly, a steady expression on her face, and these words in yellow subtitles:
the day-to-day, nihilism, immobility
I think of death as a solution.
Oh! Well then.
I keep watching, and the clip cycles back to the beginning. She is walking steadily, water foaming behind her in the upper part of the frame. She turns to look, almost towards the camera, almost towards us, but instead takes some internal satisfaction in something we can’t see.
While walking I lose authorship.
I incorporate this act as a concept of existence.
I dissolve into the collective.
She is wearing a dress with a patchwork bodice, short sleeves, a plain and solid skirt. A long necklace of some kind, as if religious, something hanging from a chain. Her hair is dark, cut short but full around her head. Her face is weathered, her expression shifting from sadness to a subtle wash of joy or pleasure, to simple receptivity and presence.
The scene changes and you see her manipulating an air-filled plastic bag with a stone resting on top, a work called Pedra e Ar (Air and Stone, 1966). She looks down tenderly, squeezing the bag and watching the stone rise to the surface and sink back into the embrace of the contained air.
If we’re still in the realm of play, it’s play that includes strangeness and death, sensory absorption, the dissolution of self.
I walk into the galleries, and the surprise of the show is her paintings. A generous selection of early experiments in oil, and then rows of impressive confident black and white geometries in paint and ink. How had I never seen these before?
I’m hunting the Bichos, and there’s a whole room of them, big ones on multilevel platforms and pedestals. Grouped like this they look like sculptures, beautiful but easy to see and forget. They have an echo of the ‘40s and of Cubist angles, geometric concerns with formal language. All of this makes sense, but it is as if the hinged parts are merely for the purposes of multiple arrangement. There is no hint that something surprising and lively might happen in the hand, might happen between you and the beast.
I see a low pedestal holding a Bicho for the visitor to try. It rests on a square of carpeting, corralled by low wooden walls.
“Can I touch?” I ask the guard, and of course she nods, taking her own hands off the metal body.
I ask her, “Do you play with it often?” She says yes, that the guards for this show were specially trained in how to handle these works.
As I move the plates and hinges she says: “You are the artist, you can make whatever you want.” Generally, this is a sentiment I like, but here it strikes me as missing something crucial. It encourages you to notice your own agency but obscures the curious counter-agency of the object in your hands.
Kids, she says, are better than adults.
“Better at playing?” I ask.
“They ask permission. The adults, if they push too hard, they could break the piece.”
Even though the guard is friendly, and easy with me, her watching makes it even harder to really play. I don’t feel like either an artist or a child.
Just beyond, there is a case of Clark’s model Bichos made from wood veneer and tape in the warm colors of aging and ephemeral materials. As I study them, they suggest a solution to my awkwardness: make one myself. That way I can play with it as much as I want.
Clark herself doesn’t much use the language of play to describe what she’s after. Her writings have the heavy romanticism of the manifesto, and the words she invests in include “act,” “instant,” “present,” “immanence,” and “total.” Clark’s belief in the transformative power of a few sheets of hinged metal, or of a plastic bag and a stone, seems passionately naive, the voice of a former time, a time of faith. And yet, if all these projects can be said to have failed, is failure such a bad thing? Honorable failure promotes humility, while success in grand schemes whips us up toward the dream of total control and its accompanying paranoias.
As the Sixties ended, Clark moved away from art and especially from museums and galleries. She shifted her work to a class she taught at the Sorbonne in Paris on gestural communication. There, she developed new “relational objects,” sensory prosthetics, and experimental rituals. Imagine a group of Sorbonne students enacting Baba Antropofagica (Anthropophagic Drool), unspooling thread from their mouths and layering a tangle of saliva covered strands over a fellow student, or picture them blindfolded and trying to eat a piece of fruit from a pouch of another student’s suit.
In the milieus of Paris and Rio, rich with psychoanalytic theory and practice, Clark began to call her work psychotherapy, and when she moved back to Rio de Janeiro in 1976 she worked privately with therapeutic participants in a project she called Estruturação do Self (Structuring the Self).
In the account of Suely Rolnik, who knew Clark and has written about her extensively, “[Clark] dedicated a room of her flat to a sort of installation, where she received each person individually for one-hour-long sessions one to three times a week over a period of months, and in some cases, even a period of years. The Relational Objects were the instruments conceived by the artist to touch the bodies of her ‘clients,’ as she referred to those who were available to experience this proposal. Naked, they would lay on one of those objects, the Grande Colchão (Large Mattress), and the session would begin.”
Although Clark called this private practice therapy, she also said that she never stopped being an artist. Estruturação do Self opens the possibility of a way of art which is not merely participatory, a form of art in which the body of the artist is copresent with the art object and with the participant in a mutual relation. Too intimate, perhaps, for most. When I imagine it, I keep picturing the sensation of being covered with drool-soaked strands.
In any case, Clark isn’t here with me to solve my hesitation. Whatever I’m going to do, I have to do myself.
I spend an afternoon in my studio making Bichos. In the iPad app of Clark’s experimental book, Livro Obro (a wondrous thing in its own right) there are PDF patterns and instructions for four Bichos.
The first one I make is the crab, Caranguejo, cutting seven identical triangles of stiff paper from a template. I tape them together according to the diagram, and there’s her crab! But no, my crab is not her crab. The one I played with at the Jewish Museum was angular with its own motions, creaking and weighted. Mine is floppy and limp. All it wants to do, really, is lie down. Making it was so much more satisfying than trying to arrange its triangulated body into some position in which it has enough energy to stand on its own.
I try again, this time with Monumento a Todas as Situações. After all, who doesn’t need such a monument? The template shows two squares, each cut into four sections with slanting lines to yield a set of irregular quadrangles. Within each square, the segments hinge to each other as if the squares are being restored or repaired, but one leaps out to the next square, interlinking the pair. Handling the Monumento at the Jewish Museum I didn’t perceive this underlying structure at all, simple as it is.
Heavy Bristol paper, X-Acto knife, marking, cutting, taping: For a while I am completely absorbed. To make it stiffer, I double each segment and tape the joints more tightly. This one stands better, but I learn some things: the materials matter, their weight, surface, density. The metal bichos come alive in a way that the paper ones can’t. I fool around with it a bit, but already I regret leaving the ones at the Jewish Museum so quickly.
Clark says, “True participation is open and we will never be able to know what we give to the spectator-author. It is precisely because of this that I speak of a well, from inside which a sound would be taken, not by the you-well, but by the other, in the sense that he throws his own stone.”
My own stone falls as into a shallow street puddle. Thudplop.
The problem is one of time, and of giving in. I can’t seem to give into the Bicho’s time. Its movement, yes, its lived time, no. Maybe for others this lived time would emerge more easily. Perhaps if I were a child, the fascination of the changing forms would absorb me totally. Maybe they would become dreams and stories. I want them to.
It’s as if I need the Bicho to step forward like a pet and command my attention, butting my hand with its head. Yes, now, play with me, no, don’t stop petting, don’t stop throwing the ball.
In the final room of Clark’s MoMA retrospective, next to a series of large sculptures made of cut and drooping black rubber hanging from the wall, I had noticed a bar-height tabletop where two visitors perched. They were cutting strips of white paper with blunt kindergarten scissors. Below them, ribbons of paper piled up on the floor. They laughed and cut, the guard hovering with them companionably. I had wanted to join them, but the table was tiny and only had two stools. So I went to the wall and read the instructions: Make a mobius from a strip of paper, pierce and begin cutting continuously along its length, making it narrower and narrower: Caminhando, walking. Ah, walking.
It was this work, this walking, that led Clark from the interactive sculptures of the Bichos towards the direct sensory experiences of her later years. “Even if this proposition isn’t considered a work of art,” she said, “and if one remains skeptical about what it implies, we still need to undertake it. By means of it, we transform and deepen ourselves, whether or not we know or want it.”
Wanting to walk with her, I rummage around my studio for a roll of adding machine paper, glue up some Möbius strips and go out for coffee while the glue dries. When I come back, I begin cutting. “Pierce,” says Clark, so I stab the paper with the open blade and start. My scissors aren’t the best, they’re sticky and the grip seems to be made for child aliens, but despite that I am soon in a rhythm of cutting. I think of the tiny blunt scissors I saw in the hands of visitors at MoMA. I cut and cut, going around. As you meet your original cut, where the scissors have torn awkwardly into the paper, there is a choice, cut to the right or the left. I go left and steer towards the edge, to preserve as much thickness as I can. As I come around to that mark a second time I realize I’ve mistaken the geometry for a loop, my left and right are now reversed, and I’ve saved nothing. Keep going. It is indeed a little like walking. And like making. There’s a shivery doubling or layering of experience—walking is making, making is playing, mine is hers. It doesn’t much matter in that moment whose the making is, Lygia Clark’s or mine. I know I’m not having as romantic an experience as she might hope for, but there, in my studio, as the ribbon of adding machine paper gets thinner and thinner in a geometry that quickly escapes my full imagining, something is happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen. From my scissors, a tangle that is one continuous piece of paper collects at my feet, a paradox object. The making of the object is not in service to the having of the object. There is a sense of going somewhere and nowhere at the same time. There is the hope of being able to go on forever as the paper narrows and narrows until one tiny slip severs the piece and you know you’re done.
References & Links (in order of appearance)
Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in The Freud Reader, Peter Gay, ed., W. W. Norton, 1989.
Other Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. Part Two of the exhibition is on view through August 3, 2014
Quotations are taken from Lygia Clark and Yves-Alain Bois, “Nostalgia of the Body,” October, Vol 69 (Summer 1994) pp. 85-109.
Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art 1944-1988 is on view at MoMA through August 24, 2014.
The film clip showing at MoMA is from O Mundo de Lygia Clark (“The World of Lygia Clark”). Directed by Eduardo Clark. 1973, Brazil. English subtitles. 27 min. Several clips from the film are projected in other rooms of the exhibition.