A Bird’s-Eye View of Engaged Practices

A Handful of Approaches to Art that Mingles with Politics


In this glossary-like document, I glance at some (by no means all) of the landscape engaged practices exist within, ranging from ideas on ‘interactivity,’ ‘relationality,’ ‘participation,’ ‘politics,’ and so on. I attempt to formulate some preliminary definitions, which will be explored further throughout the rest of this series of articles.


On the landscape of engaged practices, a lot takes place. Countless practices are often only discursively connected but in the political terms in which they are spoken about. Not only because any one artistic project is not the other but because, first and foremost, engaged practices appear to be formulated according to contingent subjects differing with every available example. Hence, their formal qualities also differ radically from one practice to another. However, historically a lot can be said about what is regarded as a ‘political’ work of art and what not. Similarly, much can be said about the way artworks engage or do not (politically). Given these two points, we can, indeed, speak of the preconditions for a practice to emerge which we could call ‘engaged.’ Many denominators carrying different sets of values and practices within them have prevailed throughout times, and some have not, giving birth to the engaged practice we encounter today. In this article, I briefly introduce some of the practices that can be differentiated throughout the past century that formulate, in one way or another, part of the conditions of what I believe we could today call ‘engaged art.’ I give examples of affiliated artists, their projects, and also some of the issues that these practices met—both politically as well as theoretically. Although structural distinctions can be made, no hard borders can be drawn between these different ways of dealing with the political in the arts: hence, many practices illustrated in this article transcend far beyond my limited knowledge and the very limited definitions I give. This article has no proper chronology and can be read as a glossary with short entries of practices affiliated with what we might call ‘engaged art’ (albeit defined from my position, from which I indeed reveal it is not neutral and will not attempt to hold the thought that it is so).

Nevertheless, although there is no predetermined nor absolute systematic approach to different kinds of engaged practices, some do carry within themselves approaches to practices that can be seen as a line through different examples of practices and can, therefore, be canonised accordingly. In a way, then, the occurrence of these practices cannot be seen without regarding the state of society at their respective times, nor without regarding the aesthetics doctrines that prevailed in those times. Following these contextual elements, some of these ‘engaged practices’ can firstly only be called ‘engaged’ in retrospect; and secondly, some of these practices might seem obvious, or even obsolete politically, from our point in time, but they were indeed ‘revolutionary’ in another time or societal context. For example, Matthijs de Bruijne’s projects with the FNV1 Cleaners’ Trade Union. Together with its members, most of whom were non-represented because they had no employment contract, de Bruijne developed a set of public demonstrations, such as protests and a public museum and the accompanying aesthetics. Although these practices were extremely relevant in the context of their struggle, and the manner in which we perform our society, they are obviously less relevant in terms of an ‘art historical’ structure, and yet I argue we need to remain calling it ‘art.’ That is not an issue at all because one of the denominators shared by all the doctrines illustrated below is that the subject of practice is not necessarily the (‘development’ of) the arts itself: engaged practices such as de Bruijne’s utilise the arts and at the same time attempt to escape from them. Above all, de Bruijne worked towards bettering the conditions of these workers, deploying the arts to do so. Although de Bruijne thinks the term ‘engaged’ is too weak for what he pursues with his practice, this is also why these practices that I describe further on can be called engaged: the bare premise is that they engage with something other than themselves, and thus are occupied in (acting upon) the relationality of something to something, and how that something is related to everything, therefore acting in reshaping the world.

This approach is philosophically based in the idea of practice as ‘(object-as)-subject.’ At this point, it is also where these practices ‘become’ political because they indeed do say something and sometimes do something with the arrangement of our being together—the arrangement of relatedness of things to things. Thus, I want to invite you to negate, postpone, or even reject thinking in artistic doctrines that are illustrated below. Rather, I would like you to investigate the practices illustrated further on and throughout this series of articles to grasp their own contexts because only in those contexts do they live up to their own premises, not when they are isolated in the art historical sense, which rips them from the social fabric in which they occurred, as they are in a way spoken of here. Or in other words, I want to invite you to go beyond the illustrated practices (which are mostly the already-known practices) and investigate how to formulate practice according to an engagement with something other than that practice yourself. As such, in this article, I will not arrive at a definition proper of ‘engaged arts,’ but I hope to sketch out some of the phenomena on this relational landscape I believe to be of value to the enactment of engaged practices.

Didactic Art

Didactic art occupies more of an ambition underpinning artistic production than a clear ‘sort’ of artwork. It intermingles the aforementioned monological quality of art with pedagogy. Its aim, therefore, is to transfer knowledge for which the artwork is either the conductor, as copper is for electricity, or where the artwork is the container of that knowledge and can be ‘unpacked’ to a certain extent through interpretation. In the occasion of conduction,the artwork is used to communicate a knowledge external to the artwork through the form of the artwork. The artwork is the signifier of that knowledge, or a visual memory support (not an illustration of truth, nor truth itself). As Badiou argues: ‘In didacticism, the relation is certainly singular (only art can exhibit a truth in the form of semblance), but not at all immanent, because the position of truth is ultimately extrinsic.’2 In the occasion of the latter, if we were to deny Badiou’s argument and instead posit that the artwork can indeed contain truth that can be found and deduced through hermeneutics, which can be guided by an interpreter (the teacher). The classical example of didactic art is many of the plays of Bertolt Brecht, who aimed to teach his audience something. Quite a strong hierarchical relation is often present in these practices where one knows, or ‘has’ knowledge, and the other almost necessarily has not, building strongly on the persona of the artist. A strong ordering of the space in which this ‘transfer’ is to take place affirms these roles.

The paradox of didacticism where art is the container of truth that the artist unpacks, as Rancière puts it, is in the fact that the artists, on the one hand, do not want to be pedantic, but, on the other, still presume that the works of art they show will be ‘perceived, observed and understood.’3 This relation to knowledge stems from an age-old relation of the arts to representation, which Albrecht Dürer, a naturalist painter, grasps properly the aim: But life in nature manifests the truth of these things. Therefore, observe it diligently, go by it and do not depart from nature arbitrarily, imagining to find the better by thyself, for thou wouldst be misled. For, verily, ‘art’ [i.e., Kunst, or theoretical knowledge, as opposed to Brauch] is embedded in nature; he who can extract it has it.’4

Badiou’s alternative is not to think about art, nor to think through art, but ‘thinking art’ or thinking ‘together with art.’5 Badiou argues thinking is not a separate thing we do apart from all other things. Thinking always coincides with multiple events. The didactic position, according to Rancière who feared the same practice, is ‘stultifying,’ which is the act of making all liveliness disappear. This form of teaching ‘does not emancipate the student but rather locks the student into an inferior position.’6 One could therefore state that Brecht’s theatre degenerated the spectators into idiots. Rancière sketches what this position entails with the dramatist who ‘would like them to see this thing, feel that feeling, understand this lesson’;7 and in doing so, the dramatist merely affirms the status quo of the spectator and thus performs in the same oppressive structure that enabled the ‘bourgeoisie’ to be spectators of that show in the first place. The didactic position, no matter how political and emancipatory its message may be, reproduces the structure it tries to evade. This ‘programming’ position, as Ruitenberg calls it, ‘disregards the agency and capacity of the reader or viewer.’8

Engaged Art

Many definitions can be given of what ‘art’ we might call ‘engaged.’ Similarly, many accidents can be ascribed to what ‘engages’ the arts—that is, makes art an actor of engagement. Primarily, much of the popular way of thinking about engaged art builds upon engaged art as a—possibly the—negation of autonomous art. Firstly, this autonomous art is a ‘hands-off art,’ an art that should be left alone to do what it pleases (because that is ‘healthy’ for society—the auto-correct, as it were). Secondly, autonomous arts relate themselves most explicitly to the development of art history through the structures of the avant-gardes. Here, art was occupied with itself primarily; and although it took ambition here and there to work with political ‘themes’—for example, in the work of Goya or Brecht—the work of art never had political potential, other than being appropriated for political motives, resulting in didacticism. In this more traditional definition, the work of art functions as a sign for something that can be used and misused according to demand—be it political, or as ‘therapy.’ Each artwork is a unique signboard—which is one of the essential qualities of art in general, although that seems paradoxical—that can be read and interpreted, and which thus conveys a certain commandment or prohibition of what is ought or ought not to be. Following that argument, it can, indeed, be indicative vis-à-vis the established reality,9 to use Marcuse’s way of describing the potential of autonomous art. That being said, I deny that autonomous art is the negation of engaged art and vice versa. One does not necessarily capitulate to the other.

I propose that the essential element distinguishing engaged practices is that it externalises its own existence, meaning that it exists in accordance with (and by grace of) something else that is not itself. Here, the word ‘engagement’ might unveil some of (although far from all) its structures. If we look at the English dictionary, ‘engaged’ suggests to mean to be betrothed to someone, and the betrothed one is always to someone/thing that is not itself. In other words, the artwork is engaged when it engages with something other than solely the artwork itself. What’s obvious here, as with any engagement, is that this does not discredit the existence of the artwork. To live up to this premise of engagement is not hard as an artwork because merely a transcendental theme would suffice. However, it is true that apart from the start of its existence, it does not need anything nor anyone to exist. Hence, I will continuously argue that theme does not do anything to the structure of the artwork: it can remain passive, even if its theme is ‘activity’ or whatnot. As such, we must speak of a structural activity,which, as a result, must be one of the foundations of engaged arts. Within this popular interpretation of the autonomous tradition I briefly sketched, the artwork would first be passive and could be activated as a usage object—in the moment, someone would decide to do something with it, even if this doing would be no more than ‘being influenced’ by it—by, say, its beauty, its making, or indeed its ‘content’ (‘it is so moving’). The artwork does not actively engage itself because the structures by which it exists are inorganic—conductors, not the conducted. So, a set of infrastructures is drawn up that, like a suitcase in an airport, circulate artworks and make them appears as if they are animated. From exhibition to exhibition they go, narrated by the voices of curators, haunted by the biographies of founding artists, and paraphrased into the stories of our politicians. This is indeed stultifying, even to the artwork itself.

In the meantime, much of the existence of artworks is in the depot, dusting away, which is, to be sure, quite passive. The foremost activity of the artwork here is that it falls apart, molecule by molecule, which that same infrastructure is drawn up to prevent. So, if we take this into account while thinking of ‘engagement’ as sketched above, I would propose that what the engaged artwork does is that it does and, just as importantly, that we—the infrastructure of art—allow it to do so. There, in engaged art, the ‘doing’ part is essential, the ‘Art’ of engaged art does not necessarily take place in (or on) the artwork itself, but in the reality within which ‘it’ exists. Hence, the relation is externalised. Within this reality in which the engaged artwork is outside the vaults and depots—unveiled from its acid-free blankets—is where the artwork manifests by method of how it tweaks and intervenes on that reality, not merely in secondary regards (as it would then be the earlier mentioned appropriation) but in primary regards. How it—the structure of the artwork itself—functions not only vis-à-vis reality but as part of reality in which it exists simultaneously.

What’s obvious here is that the artwork is the conductor of art, not ‘art’ itself, because that art takes place in the effect and affects of the artwork. We could oddly paraphrase that the artwork is that which makes art ‘work.’ The engaged artwork thus sees art as that which it produces externally to itself. It regards how it deals with the world as a subject and by the structures of art—being, among other things, a unique thing—how it takes responsibility for the world in which it exists and, as such, actively partakes in (re-)shaping. That it ‘shapes’ our world is, above all, another important quality of any art. The manner by which that is done actively distinguishes engaged arts. The manner in which it does so consciously might distinguish it as ‘good.’ Delving into such an artistic practice would, therefore, loosen and produce an immense range of new questions and issues, and, above all, a new manner of hermeneutics—because these are now dematerialised. The artwork is ‘loosened’ from its conducting form, although it would not have been conducted without that form.

‘Interactive’ Art

Although I’m starting with interactive art here, it should not be regarded historically in such a chronological manner because it is not a distinguished genre but more of an approach to the idea of an artwork in relation to a (possible) spectator(ship). The reason I start with interactive art is that it does take as a premise a bare minimum of relationality that is necessary to call a practice somewhat ‘engaged,’ simply because it attempts to break the ‘fourth wall’ of art—that of the monadic and somewhat ‘sacred’ artwork that is not to be touched within its proper institutional framework. It hence breaks through the virtual point that discriminates ‘spectator’ from ‘artwork,’ although it oddly also builds upon it, but in doing so introduces a ‘relationality’ in which a certain amount of interaction between subject and object is embraced that transcends the mere gaze alone. This relationality—albeit a more deep-rooted approach to it—is at the core of any engaged practice.

Often, interactivity expresses itself in the barren doctrine that the artwork is not finished without it being ‘seen.’ Interactivity, therefore, can already start with the simple affirmation of the presence of a spectator, which Yayoi Kusama’s Mirror Rooms (multiple installations since 1963)can thought of as an example. Why would anyone regard this as interactive? A bit of an unrewarding answer might be that the object is not a self-contained thing at which you look, but something within which you look: hence the gaze is part of the ‘wholeness’10 of the artwork. The interactivity of these works manifests by a ‘withinness,’ where you become a simulated formal ‘part’ of the work of art: you become part of its aesthetics. While moving oneself, the artwork is in movement, and this merging of gaze and artwork signifies its ‘kaleidoscopic capacity.’11 The mirror, as Kusama also uses it, works well to accomplish this effect because the artwork and the visitor meet in one virtual plane—which is why it is simulated because they never really touch. The interactivity in Kusama’s work is that it bends the gaze on to itself through the structures of the artwork. In this act, the artwork maintains a virtual point of the mirror, which is always ‘over there,’ 12 as Foucault notes. It is at a distance. In this way, this type of work is ‘open’ to relationality only in the sense that it is ‘to be completed13 by an ‘addressee.’ The interactivity is in the fact that the artwork can only be seen with the seer in it.

What’s difficult about this approach is that it renders nearly anything as ‘interactive,’ which, as Rancière would correctly argue, is at least a philosophical truth because taking a selfie with an artwork would in this case also make it interactive. It might be true that this is why some museums do not allow pictures to be taken because that debunks the work of art as this sacral being that transcends the human timespace: within this belief, it is, indeed, a unity that the picture breaks. Interactivity introduces this ephemerality as part of the artwork and so debunks its ‘wholeness’ by allowing ‘withinness,’ which by degree also then becomes part of that realm which classical museums attempt to stop the artwork becoming part of. Interactivity might also be a reason why so many museums, such as Voorlinden in Wassenaar or Moco in Amsterdam, are so appealingly designed for selfies to be taken. The first dedicated ‘selfie museums’ without any art at all have already popped up. ‘Apparently you don’t need art at all for a successful museum-selfie,’14 a journalist reviewing such ‘museums’ ironically remarks. One might ask ‘why?’ I would argue precisely for their ‘interactive’ aspects—it allows visitor and artwork to merge simulated on the plane of the mirror image, be it of silver-backed glass or of OLED. One cannot escape the thought of panopticism, but that is indeed a non-interactive interactivity, on which again the gaze is bent back on to itself. Alternatively, the interactive part of safe rooms is the mere interactivity of the thought of interactivity: just the idea of someone watching it later on is enough to take the picture. Panopticism becomes fetish in the selfie museum, where one actually wants to be disciplined by the gaze, and does this by oneself.

Rancière has quite critically elaborated on the premises of ‘interactivity,’ stating that it often presumes that if someone is seated and silent during, say, a theatre show, this ‘spectator’ is thought of as ‘passive.’15 Because the actors are ‘doing’ something, it can be argued that the spectator is not by negation. Rancière states that any art by nature is interactive, though that interactivity should not be confused with any art being ‘animated,’ nor that it has an appealing interface that approaches you and lures you to ‘interact’ through screaming red buttons. Within that active/passive dyad, I would argue that ‘not-animated’ is all too often mistaken for being passive. Although the body that the respective work of art interacted with is not animated in that same instance (apart from its homeostatic activity, which it might also influence), it does not mean it is not interactive—because this interactivity also constantly takes place in the mind of the spectator when interpreting, translating, or narrating what is seen. The spectator ‘takes part in the performance by recreating it in its own way,’16 Rancière argues. Interpretation is creation, and thus it is interaction, Jacques Derrida might also have reminded us.

Pursuing this ‘activation’ of an audience in an artwork ‘stultifies’17 the spectator, locking them ‘into an inferior position.’18 In relation to seeing different sensory experiences of art as being a form of interactivity, it is worth noting that it also argues by negation that our prime way of dealing with the world around us (sight) is regarded as passive.19 As I will elaborate later, this presumption is built upon the idea that seeing is not doing; in much the same way, it is sometimes still argued that saying is not acting, or that discrimination is not violence. The politics of interactivity—regardless to what extent it is animated or not—lies, as Rancière might put it, in the positionality of ‘seeing and doing,’ which inherently relates to domination and submission.20 ‘It only starts when one realises that looking is also an action that confirms or anchors the distribution of positions’21; what is seen and how it is seen thus also defines what can(not) be said and what can(not) be done. Negating the gaze as passive defies ‘what is visible or not.’22 It is these aesthetic experiences ‘that simultaneously determine the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.’23

What the active/passive dyad criticism encompasses, I think, other than ‘animation,’ concerns the closing of distance, which is attempted all too often through the faculty of touch. Although this type of bridging is a sensory structure in the end, it concerns hand-eye coordination (that which we can reach by touch is close): hence, this touching is a visual touch. The touching of artworks at museums for the visually impaired is a visual touch where seeing is conducted through other faculties, such as touch.

Taking interactivity one step further, at least on a practical level, it can be said that the artwork cannot be finished without it being made by an audience; as such, the touch/made code is enacted to bridge that distance Rancière criticises in the first place. It builds upon a strong dichotomous relation between artwork and audience, which from that premise tries to break it, or rather bring together both parties dissimulating the distance that is essential to gazing. Although Rancière notes that when acting is needed to ‘make’ the artwork, it pacifies the gaze: ‘The distance is not an evil that must be fought, but the normal condition for any communication.’24 I believe the dissimulation of distance does occasionally add to the work in terms of interaction and its politics. It is not only seeing we perform in a relationality; sometimes, we need to get close to each other. A practice that illustrates this quite well is Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) because here the assemblage of artist and spectator is the artwork; so, in this case, it is true that the work of art cannot be finished without being made by a visitor, too. Although it might also be true that it is exactly the attempt to ‘abolish the distance’ between the artist and the audience that ‘creates distance’25 in the first place. ‘Contradictions,’ Rancière continues, such as ‘artist vs. audience’ and ‘passive vs. active […] are incarnated allegories of inequality.’26 Nevertheless, this work does, on a practical level, shorten the distance between artist and spectator, which in this instance is the artwork. It is also true, as Rancière argues, that this act affirms that distance in the first place, only to then bridge it. It produces the near-mythical position of the artist-spectacle ‘Abramović.’

In Tania Bruguera’s 10,148,451 (2018), thermal paint on the floor would respond to bodies present. 10,148,451 attempts to dismantle this impasse through the touch/made code, although, ironically, this specific work draws on such an amount of interactive input that it cannot be made, which in fact might be its sadistic pun. It regresses into the ‘gazeal’ structure in which the portrait hidden under the thermal paint of the Syrian migrant Yusef will never be fully revealed, ‘showing’ that impasse of the situation quite compelling on a didactic level as a result. These poetics manifest only in a reflective contemplation that is always retrospective. Speaking of registration of one of these two performances, however, would fall categorically out of this argument and should thus be regarded as something else than the artwork itself, although it is often this registration that is eventually presented as the artwork (even though the artists might argue otherwise). The registration, however, helps us to think the poetics of which we were not part ourselves.

In the attempt to introduce the spectator to the process of the coming-into-being of the artwork (as Abramović’s performance tries to do), interactivity, as I have said before, can also include any practice in which the otherwise separate bodies—that of the ‘artwork’ and the ‘spectator’—are meant to touch because it dissimulates distance that the gaze necessarily has in order to ‘gaze’ at something. This idea follows on from the virtual togetherness that the mirror in Kusama’s work simulates, but allows for real touch, breaking that sacral ‘wholeness’ and even ‘separateness’ of the artwork. In doing so, it breaks that virtual plane ‘over there.’ Although no substantive sensory difference occurs when an artwork is allowed to be touched (besides just introducing a ‘different’ sensory experience of the artwork other than the gaze, which is also its political quality), this is the most predominant and most present ‘kind’ of interactive art. For example, you can both touch and reside in Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud Cities (2011), which allows you to interact through your whole body. The thought in most interactive arts does not cancel out any other sensory experience, such as sight, but is an addition. What’s more, ‘walking over’ introduces a new sensory experience, as in Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961), or Menashe Kadishman’s Shalekhet (2001), in which the weight of the body not only touches the artwork but also generates sound. Here, the gaze is decentralised as the prime sense in the experience of art, but the cognitive process is not— especially in Shalekhet—because the new sensory experience does substantively add to the experience of the artwork. If we follow the structure of Rancière’s political argument, this is political in the sense that it proposes another distribution of our experiences of life because this ‘transformation of the sensory fabric’27 proposes new ways of ‘being together,’28 since it does intervene on the hegemony of the gaze and our presence in a certain space.

Menashe Kadishman, Shalekhet, 2001.
Image by Mary Crandall (licensed under BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Interactive art might also include what can be called ‘causal’ art: these are artworks that present themselves as sorts of causal chains where the chain missing is you, the spectator now-to-become-participant. Participatory art can easily be subdivided, but in the context of interactivity, it means that the ‘effect’—in other words, the ‘finished’ artwork—cannot occur properly without the ‘participant’ partaking in the infrastructure of the production. Technology often plays an important part in this approach—for example, when you can influence a live concert by giving input through a website, shifting what musical notes appear to the musician. This ‘when-then’ structure recurs throughout interactive artistic practices in which what is presented is often an interface, not the artwork itself. Interestingly, an intermediary is often needed: direct ‘interaction’ is mostly not allowed, which is also true of Abramović’s The Artist is Present, in which the interaction is mediated by the table between you and the artist. Interactivity thus always occurs through an ‘interface’ that is defined and bordered to specify what can be done and what cannot be done by a ‘spectator-on-the-verge-of-participation.’

Participatory Art

Beuys worked together with inhabitants of Kassel to plants his 7,000 oak trees; Bruguera utilised the collective thermal power of the bodies of those who joined; Abramović allowed (or possibly tolerated) visitors to sit opposite her. In a way, all these practices utilise the position of ‘spectator’ to produce the artwork. Participatory art can be regarded as the superlative of interactive art, which tries to get rid of the ‘interface’ that maintains a hard border between artwork and spectator. In interactive art, an artwork still prevails regardless of the contingent interaction (interaction merely finished the artwork). While in participatory art, there is no artwork at all without interaction, and because of that fact, it is called ‘participation’ rather than interaction—although the verb ‘to partake in’ does indeed affirm the script of the artist within whose practice a participant partakes. It thus does not always mean that every part of the participation always has a say in it.

Abramović sitting at that table in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is already the formal bare artwork; the potentiality of sitting at the opposite end of that table merely formally finishes it, although of course that adds substantively to this specific artwork. Bruguera’s paint on the floor is already there with the portrait of Yusef underneath, ready to be activated by a visitor—who can allow it to become visible to the eye of a third observer—but that portrait of Yusef remains there regardless of that visitor. Participatory art does not exist without interaction with a spectator, who through that ‘type’ of interaction becomes a participant. In other words, it is the interaction of persons which is the artwork. These persons, above all, first have to offer themselves to the artist only to then become a participant, and, in a way, a spectator simultaneously of themselves (through the knowledge that one partakes in an artwork in the first person, cognitively imagining the third person seeing it). This spectator is knighted by The Artist into artisthood if they are to accept the contract of participation, building somewhat formally on the Beuysean premise that, indeed, anyone can be an artist, but then of the art itself and not of sociality as with his social sculpture. As Bishop puts it, participatory practices differ from interactive practices ‘in striving to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception.’29

The participatory doctrine can thematically be derived from the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’—an artwork made by many artists, or consisting of many artworks—although the form is not object-based but subject-based. In other words, the artwork occurs as long as the subjects are ‘partaking’ (verb), and are partaking according to what is to be done. It thus relates very differently to time than the Gesamtkunstwerk, which is made to last after the interaction, and for participatory art, which can differ any time it is repeated, this is not necessary. The ‘artwork’ in participatory art thus also ceases to exist once that participation comes to an end because the artwork here is subject-dependent. Firstly, ownership is often also decentralised in participatory art, in opposition to much of the Gesamtkunstwerks we know, in which we merely see a selection of artists that tolerate that the borders of each’s artwork touch and interfere. Secondly, this subject-dependent participation does not, however, imply no lasting object can stem from participation, although this object must be closer to the category of archival material than that sacral artwork I spoke of earlier in regards to its value within a practice. If the artwork were the goal and climax of participation, this artwork is not participatory but interactive because it is the participation itself which is the artwork. The schema of participation thus also opens up to an (often predetermined) extent the artist’s script, and, therefore, the expected outcome for it is linked to the contingent participants, who all differ from each other. The participatory part in participatory art is much more a formal aspect rather than a substantive one, although it does often follow conceptual and often ideological considerations, explicitly about our ‘being together’—decentralising individualism, flattening hierarchies, queering dominant worldviews. Hence, here it is the social within a predetermined framework that is indeed the sculpture, to put it in Beuysian terms, but it exchanges the transcendental view of social sculpture for an embodied sociality: it enacts what it believes and that enactment is the art.

Many practices can be ‘participatory,’ and so it is not a necessary condition for engaged practices; a practice can be engaged without ever dealing with other subjects primarily, which in participatory art is a requirement. Participation is, however, an approach that is often encountered with engaged practices because it not only allows for more than the bare relationality in interactive art but can only exist as a relationality, and in this aspect, it closely relates to engaged practices necessarily. Good examples are most projects by Jeanne van Heeswijk—for example, her recent project at BAK, Utrecht (2019). The project was called Trainings for the Not Yet and consisted of a set of public endeavours where artists and visitors were invited to delve into certain contemporary issues, and in that collectiveness, ‘training’ for what not yet is; a future to be trained towards.

For example, as part of Training for the Not Yet, artist Carmen Papalia was invited to work with a group or participants on ‘accessibility.’ He took those who joined on a Blind Field Shuttle30(2010; 2019), very much re-enacting The Blind Leading the Blind (1568) by Pieter Bruegel. While holding each other’s shoulders based on trust, participants were invited to join on a ‘non-visual walking tour’31 through public space in a way they normally would not. Participants would ‘shut their eyes for a roughly hour-long walk through cities and rural landscapes’32 in order for those who joined to train to ‘unlearn visual primacy and use their non-visual senses as a primary way of knowing the world.’33 Here, the didactic qualities of participatory art become explicit, too, which is praiseworthy as many note that ‘participation is important as a project: it rehumanises a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production.’34 This potential of participatory practices, as Bishop argues, relies heavily on critiques of the spectacle formulated by Guy Debord. Papalia’s participatory performance not only introduced a new manner of being together; it also decentralised visual primacy both by the effect of blinding, as well as the lack of an object on to which a possible gaze could be focussed. As such, consciousness was displaced from the object to the act itself, where the artwork manifested at that moment by enacting it.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle, 2010.
The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As Bishop’s note on capitalist production already makes clear, participatory art very much has an explicit relation to an interpretation of ‘relationality’ that very often builds on a critique of consumerist individualism. As Walter Benjamin had already argued in 1934, the work of art should work as an apparatus that turns as many ‘consumers it is able to […] into producers—that is, the more readers or spectators into collaborators.’35 Individualism, as Bishop notes elsewhere, ‘is viewed with suspicion, not least because the commercial art system and museum programming continue to revolve around lucrative single figures,’36 so collective practices attempt, as Kester poses, to ‘transcend “the snares of negation and self-interest”.’37

However, Bishop critically notes that criticism of participatory practices ‘is dominated by ethical judgements on working procedures and intentionality,’38 stemming from the common centralisation of ‘ethics’ in participatory practices. In many of those practices, Bishop argues, ‘the aesthetic are degenerated as merely visual, superfluous, academic—less important that concrete outcomes, or the proposition of a “model” or prototype of social relations.’39 This ‘process as product,’ Bishop continues, fails to be able to be described in terms of aesthesis [aesthetics]: ‘an autonomous regime of experiences that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality.’40 The popular argument here is that this more closely adheres to what some might call ‘social work’ than the arts. I must disagree to some extent, arguing with Rancière in the back of my mind that it does this ‘social work’ through the faculties of aesthetics—by intervention on what we have available to our senses and simultaneously what sense we have available, sculpting both into a social domain. It is social in the sense that it makes use of interventions on spaces of appearance, which make or break what can present itself to experience and thus partake in it. It does regard a dematerialised aesthetics, as I will argue in some of the articles within this series.

Political Art

Baudrillard notes that ‘there is nothing more absurd […] than the assertion that contemporary art does not involve any political project.’41 Political art is any form of art that engages with a topic on a substantive level that we regard as ‘political.’ This art is therefore somewhat a political commentary and is much in line with Adorno’s committed art. Political here should be understood as that which concerns society in a certain time and space; in other words, that which is experienced and, therefore, reported on and talked about, and so remains an ongoing event that consequently needs to be talked about and reported on more and more. Hence, political art is art that is about something political and prefers to ‘talk about’ that which is political through the artwork. The work of art, however, itself is not necessarily political itself. This ‘aboutness’ manifests in many artistic practices and is thus political in the sense that what it speaks about is politics; it is not political in the manner in which it speaks about politics: it just reports and condemns, which is as important as the interpretation of the news. This multiplicity of artworks can be political in two orders of aboutness. The first is ‘intentional aboutness,’ by which I mean that it was the attempt of the artist to work with a political subject, intentionally ‘putting’ that subject into the artwork as a result in order for it to be conceived in such a way as was intended, hence seeing the artwork as a communicational medium. Therefore, the ‘meaning’ is contributed. A slogan that could fit this type of aboutness would be ‘with this work I want to say…,’ which is obviously followed by a statement: ‘…that politicians are robots’; ‘…that our reality is ambivalent’; ‘…that war sucks.’ This aboutness strongly depends on the idea of a finished work of art that is chronologically ‘constructed’ according to the whims of the artist, from which ‘meaning’ came to be—be it a narrative or an argument. ‘The author still reigns’42 in this chronology, for what is said can be deduced to the (morals of the) author: there is somewhat a ‘pure’ meaning to the artwork, which has to be ‘transmitted’; this artwork indeed has a teleological constitution. This intentional aboutness, therefore, has a didactic element to it because it attempts to ‘tell’ or even ‘convince us of’ something, but which, according to Rancière, we should think of as ‘stultifying’ because it tells an audience ‘what to think.’43 This order of aboutness is strongly founded on the idea that art is a form, or rather channel, of communication, where it is the artist that speaks. It is the talking head we know from the news broadcast of art.

The second type of political art makes use of ‘attributed aboutness,’ which mostly consists of the interpretation of an audience or critic—so it is intentional aboutness upside down. For this aboutness, the intentions of the artist are not only regarded as unimportant but otiose, and the work is created through interpretation, and interpretation is creation, as Barthes and Derrida have illustrated. Of course, the constitution of the artwork—often regarded in material constitution—and the interpretation of it interfere with each other through elements such as semiotics. What is presented to a possible audience is limited, always, and although we can easily fantasise from a finite set to infinity, the limited constitution of any artwork does give direction to association; and, on one occasion, it does so more aggressively than at another. If this idea of intentional aboutness was centralised in practice, what Adorno said when raging against ‘committed art’ would indeed be true: that it is nowhere more so where engaged art seems to be dead politically.44 However, if all judgement is in the eye of the beholder, and attributed aboutness would be centralised, it would be ridiculous to fill that empty shell of the artwork with ‘content’ because not only will it not be seen it will also not even matter. Reducing politics to art would trivialise political reality.45

Both approaches are problematic. First of all, intentional aboutness makes the artwork a communicational object in itself, not a subject of communication. In other words, the artwork is the intermediary of communication, sole interface, or in the strongest case the object of information. It does not communicate itself but is communicated through. What communicates through the artwork is the artist and the audience, but because the audience cannot speak with the artist through the object (because they are not present; they are even absent when the artist is present), this is a monologue. So, intentional political art is in a close alliance with ‘pamphletism,’ in which the artwork is the aesthetical arrangement of what is to be communicated and functions only as a unique signboard for otherwise formless content. Attributed aboutness follows on the monological quality of this communicative art, but centralises the audience in this monologue, in which the artwork can indeed be anything to the audience. And the ‘emptier’ the artwork, the fuller it might be of meaning to the audience because that meaning can be projected onto the artwork, which it rebounds perfectly back to that same audience. Some name this the political potential of autonomous art—for example, Marcuse, who notes that ‘the more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change.’46 Only in autonomy has it a position ‘vis-à-vis the given social relations,’47 which, as Marcuse puts it, is necessary to indict that social relation.48 You have to stare it in the eyes, and for that you need distance. As Badiou argues, art as he sees it ‘does not communicate or inform: art constructs that which does not exist for communication, and it makes this appear by extracting it from the domain of communication (affirmative art always abstracts).’49 Taking Badiou’s argument further, it could also be argued that it is precisely because it does not communicate that art speaks to everyone.

In a way, this follows the same structure as intentional aboutness, but the opposite chronology. Here, the frustrating part, as many people not into the languages of art might come across, is that the artwork will not respond—this monologue feels as if nobody is listening, and although it is often said the artwork is not ‘understood’ in such a schema, I would argue it is, in fact, the spectator who doesn’t feel understood by the artwork, which I feel is more legitimate in this framework. Again, the artwork is not a subject of communication here, so it will not affirm you as audience. Attributed aboutness strongly links to the constructions of mythologies, where certain images are appropriated to formulate an icon or symbol of an external story. The reason it is this type of art that offers itself for such political appropriation is exactly because it allows to be (fully) formulated post-production. It is not only a story to which we can ascribe our own association. It is basically a set of unformed signs, a grammar without words, a colouring image which can be used by anyone to formulate one’s own picture—which is, indeed, wonderfully democratic as well as an amazingly powerful political technology.

In both directions, meaning is ascribed to the artwork—be it beforehand in terms of what is made and the whims of the artist, or afterwards, in terms of how it is perceived and interpreted. In this classical diptych, if this ‘content’ is to be political, it is true that the artwork functions in a passive structure in which, as Adorno polemically puts it: ‘Genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature [i.e., engaged arts], it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.’50 As Marcuse notes: ‘The world really is as it appears in the work of art.’51 The relationality in which the political-art schema functions is that it either conveys content on to an audience, or enables an audience to convey content on to themselves through rebound of the monological quality of the artwork. The scheme of political art is thus a communicational technology. As Manderson notes, we need an art ‘that can hold politics to account rather than simply exult in it.’52 To use a bad play on words as an argument towards political potential of this technology: the literal Dutch translation of ‘aboutness’ is ‘government’ [over-heid]. If art is a shell, then no matter the direction of intentionality (whether it flows down from a maker on to an audience, or whether the mechanisms of the artwork make the audience think it themselves), that shell can be consciously filled to signify meaning at any moment in production or afterwards. There are many orders of doing so; the first, although it is the weakest, is still widely used and is called ‘pamphletism,’ which is followed by many other forms of propaganda, which I will elaborate on in another article.

Relational Aesthetics

Both interactive and participatory practices build on the production of and intervention on relationalities, albeit following different formal approaches and maintaining different (aesthetics) borders. In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998; 2002 in English), Bourriaud described that certain practices in the 1990s introduced a ‘relational’ aspect into both the production of art as well as into how it is perceived, or even ‘consumed.’ One of the most famous examples is Rirkrit Tiravanija in his untitled (free/still) (1992), in which he moved everything in the adjacent rooms of an arts gallery into the main exhibition space—including the gallerist, who then worked ‘publicly.’53 Tiravanija cooked in that space and invited visitors to join them for a meal,54 while having some chit-chat. The food here, of course, functioned as an intermediary to engage in a relation with visitors as one would with friends, using aesthetic formations (taste) and configurations (sitting together) combined with a common ground (the need of food) to produce new relationalities (friendship over transaction). This might seem innocent, but as its theoretical protagonist Bourriaud argues: ‘It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows’;55 in other words, we have to act the relations out now that we would prefer to have tomorrow. This opposes the grandeur of Utopia, which it seems we can always postpone acting towards. Therefore, Bourriaud’s argument seems to be that eating with strangers becomes a political enactment of the world of tomorrow. It creates ‘new models of sociability.’56 This nearly meta-modernist stance is accurately paraphrased by Bishop, echoing what Bourriaud means by ‘relational aesthetics’ by delving into the term ‘microtopias.’57 It proposes a modest utopianism in the present, rather than this postponed speculative utopian future:

Th[e] audience is envisaged as a community: rather than a one-to-one relationship between work of art and viewer, relational art sets up situations in which viewers are not just addressed as a collective, social entity, but are actually given the wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be.58

Bourriaud explains that one the reasons relational aesthetics is not ‘simply a theory of interactive art’59 is because rather than engaging with the constitution of one artwork, it attempts to counter a culture at large, which builds upon the critique of consumerism and the spectacle, ideas explored mostly by philosophers Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard. Bourriaud states that ‘there is a society where human relations are no longer “directly experienced,” but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation.’60 Therefore, his argument proposes that the artwork has become about relations but does not encompass a relationality. He notes that in this ‘impasse,’ which is ‘the most burning issue to do with art today [the 1990s], is it still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field art history traditionally earmarked for their “representation”?’61 What relational art attempts to accomplish, according to Bourriaud, is to take ‘as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interaction and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.’62 In other words, not to be ‘about’ relationalities, which we individually can spectate in a work of art, but to construct them; to ‘be’ relational. Bourriaud elaborates that most of the artworks he earmarks as relational aesthetics are ‘henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through,’63 rather than a space to be walked through; an object to be observed; a piece to be passively consumed. Bishop paraphrases: ‘Relational artworks seek to establish intersubjective encounters (be these literal or potential) in which meaning is elaborated collectively.’64 It is not just a theory of ‘form,’ it is ‘a theory of formations.’65 Although the relational aesthetics approach does not build on the primacy of the gaze, Bourriaud does argue that ‘without the human gaze art no longer exists—it transforms itself solely into matter.’66 He adds a remark by Liam Gillick: ‘Art is like the light in a fridge. To see it, we have to open the door,’67 hence necessarily working against a desertification of our social realm, arguing that art is that which makes us open the door towards one another, or even illuminate one another as if on a stage. An object can have a more fundamental position in relational aesthetics than in participatory art because we can encounter it together and so it does something with our being together.

A concept often related to ‘relational aesthetics’ is that of ‘happenings,’ where the art is something that ‘takes place,’ and the artist in a way becomes an organiser. An example given by Bourriaud is that of Christine Hill, who accompanies the break with the traditional distance of the artist by taking on roles, for example, of a shoe shiner or rock singer. ‘In the process, she proposes new roles for viewers (as consumers, tourists, members of a television audience), redefines exhibition spaces (as stores, studios, catwalks) and reinvents a mobile artistic identity (whether as a show host, store owner or tour guide).’68 Although this ‘resets’ the aesthetic formation of our being together, Bourriaud has indeed forgotten to note the most important relational aspect of this work, being that Hill’s ‘art mimicked classically female service roles’ by discussing it ‘in gender-free terms.’69 The potential is not in the aesthetic configuration of spaces but in the aesthetic formations of the relations it proposes.

Bourriaud offers us a range of artists he regards as working with the premises he describes, among whom are Carsten Höller, Maurizio Cattelan, Jes Brinch, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Liam Gillick, Santiago Sierra, Vanessa Beecroft, Noritoshi Hirakawa, and Pierre Huyghe. ‘All of whom will be familiar to anyone who has attended the international biennials, triennials, and Manifestas that have proliferated over the last decade [1990s],’70 as Bishop polemically adds. Following this remark, what I believe distinguishes relational art from participatory art and socially engaged art is that it very much is an institutional practice, by which I mean that the subversion of the ‘work of art/viewer’ role can only manifest in a context where that role is presumed and enacted in the first place, and what other place than the institutions of art maintain such a role? It would be arguable that in this view, relational aesthetics can be seen as the socially engaged art for museum contexts. In a way, this self-invited criticism risks taking the needle out of relational aesthetics, which is the reason why some might call the relationalities it attempts to enact ‘artificial.’ Although it is quite a lovely gesture, Tiravanija is known for adding the entry ‘lots of people’71 to his list of materials in the annotation of the artwork—actively acknowledging their role in the constitution of the artwork. However, it remains his list of materials, and it also remains a list of materials. The social quality is a material of the work of art. A question we might ask Bourriaud is in what manner this introduces a new way of living together, as he proposes, but one that furthers the instrumental reason and objectification of human interactions? A question that we should simultaneously ask ourselves is whether all relational art should be as friendly as Tiravanija’s? Obviously, and in his defence, no existing place is ideal for new relationalities to be enacted, which counts for any artistic practice. The art space might be best of the worst.

Both questions can be asked of much of Santiago Sierra’s works, in which he indeed sets up a relationality by paying people to get tattooed, or to masturbate, or to work a set of continuous hours. The question regarding the politics of his work is whether it emphasises or even affirms the consumerist, ‘alienated labour’ relationality we all already live through constantly—that of a regressing value-of-labour scheme, especially when we keep in mind the obvious fact that he himself of course ‘receives payment for his actions,’72 doubling this scheme into ethically confusing knot. We could summarise his artistic doctrine in the simple line that he just searches for the limit of ‘what a person might do for money.’ This aim can only lead to either murder or death because the answer might very well be everything as we get by in the neoliberal order. Sierra leaves it to us to do something about it. Leaving that criticism to rest for now, it is indeed true that Sierra’s artworks go beyond the feedback loop of ‘similar subjectivities,’ aligning rather than colliding as we encounter in Tiravanija’s artworks, which, as Bishop puts it, mainly function to ‘permit networking among a group of art dealers and like-minded art lovers.’73 Sierra’s work does problematise the subjectivities that we know—although he does it through the negative superlative, arguing that these subjectivities are already sick, even if we might not yet notice the symptoms. He shows us not microtopia but microdystopia: a small antonym of utopia in the present (might that not be another word for ‘reality as we know it’?). To be sure, it is a telling and confrontational practice. A question we do need to ask ourselves is whether the bloated exposé of the miseries of our world in the ‘microtopious’ art space is a legitimate weapon against them. Do the steroid relationalities of capital in Sierra’s work do something about the relationalities within capitalism at large? This, above all, was what Bourriaud described when noting that ‘it seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrow.’74

The arts are full of these schizophrenias, where they simultaneously do what they criticise. And occasionally, this roller-coaster is thrilling our senses, but it induces nausea more often. These types of schizophrenias occur throughout the arts and often reflect faults in the infrastructure of art in general, and we should be careful to push it solely on to the artists that function within it. So, it is also the institutional side of relational aesthetics that renders it numb in a sense, not necessarily just its ambitions or methods.

Following the premise that relational aesthetics hoped to offer a countermovement against the consumerism of that era, Hill again offers a fitting example. At the documenta X (1997), she opened a fully functional second-hand store ‘in another underpass’75 as part of her series Volksboutique (1996),76 a ‘boutique’ for the people: rich people go there to buy expensive stuff. Now poor people could go to the documenta (the high-class thing) to buy poor people’s stuff, or rich people poor people’s stuff. This does, indeed, create new terrains and an ambiguous new relationality. Of course, what must be criticised here is that it still functions within the structure which it claims to protest. It might even be regarded as vulgar, making already precarious people part of a show in which they themselves are now also exhibited. Bourriaud argues that artists like Hill do not attempt to unleash a revolution of some sort, as might be said of the 1960s, but attempt to ‘inhabit the world in a better way.’77 In this way, their personas are of little importance, too, hence leading Bishop to accurately note that ‘it is often hard to identify who has made a particular piece of “relational” art,’78 which indeed is a compliment if it accomplishes the production of new relationalities. The infrastructure through which those ‘new relationalities’ are produced, however, must always be reproduced simultaneously. Apart from the infrastructure, it does also ask for a new way of engaging with arts on a theoretical level, as Downey illustrates when he notes that relational art concerns the ‘interrelation between people and the extent to which such relations […] need to be considered as an aesthetic form.’79 It is at this level that our arts hermeneutic still has to be revisited, which I will attempt to do in the articles in this series.


In order to understand engaged practices, the term ‘relationality’ should be elaborated. It is one of the postulates that allows for something like engaged practices to exist in general and builds on the idea that there is a connectedness to things from which the artwork cannot retract itself. The opposite is true; relationality implies that the artistic practice is formulated in such a manner that it is to intervene upon the connectedness of things, believing that the artwork has a role to play in reinventing or reshaping relationality. In this relationality, two elements are of importance that distinguish engaged art from anything else. The crux of this matter is firstly in the way in which artworks engages (i.e., actively/consciously or passively) and, secondly, with what it engages (i.e., with itself or something else), and by extension, what the intended goal of this relationality is: what is to be done.

If an artwork deals predominantly with itself, we crash into the classical definition of autonomy which has been ‘autonomous’ only since the modernist era, which brought about a movement where ‘art becomes self-conscious of its autonomy.’80 Autonomy has been defined as independent self-determination: the artwork thus regards itself. ‘The principle that governs autonomous works of art is […] their own inherent structure.’81 In order to do so, the ‘signifier’ (form) and the ‘signified’ (content or meaning) ought to coincide within aesthetics. Adorno notes that content is not that which has been ‘put’ into the artwork: ‘if anything it is the opposite.’82 It regards what has not been put into it. Hence, the signified is supposed to be empty (or rather, not consciously filled with intentional meaning), which is to say that form and lack-of-content coincide in an aesthetics shell. The argument seems to be that by leaving the signified empty, the spectator gets the agency to impose a certain meaning on to the artwork themselves, which is also why some regard this approach to autonomous arts as the political potential of art in general. One of those is Marcuse, who notes: ‘I see the political potential of art in art itself, in the aesthetic form as such.’83 By grace of its autonomous attitude, art does not blindly partake in the given social relations. ‘By virtue of its aesthetic form, art is largely autonomous vis-à-vis the given social relations. In its autonomy, art both protests these relations, and at the same time transcends them. Art thereby subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience.’84 He even goes further, stating that ‘the autonomy of art reflects the unfreedom of individuals in the unfree society. […] in contradicting it, art achieves its autonomy.’85 Through contradicting the unfreedom, ‘the autonomy of art contains the categorical imperative: things must change.’86

Of those who pursue a ‘committed practice,’ as opposed to an autonomous one, Adorno says that those ‘works of art that react against empirical reality [i.e., that which is] obey the forces of that reality, which reject intellectual creations and throw them back on themselves.’87 The necessary consequence is that of a neutralised, censored position of subjective expression that we still very much see in evaluations of artworks today when the rhetorical argument of ‘taste’ is put forward and dialogue is no longer possible. Therefore, here the committed artwork Adorno speaks of takes no active relational position, apart from that of a retraction from it through the expression of it ‘opinion.’ This regresses into the famous ‘whatever interpretation.’ The committed artwork in this case, indeed, has become autonomous: so self-contained it becomes impossible to speak about, simultaneously degenerating, or rather forcing anyone into the role of the idiot, one who has no right to speak of what is regarded because there is nothing to speak of since we relational beings do not share the same accident as the artwork, which becomes non-relational through this structure. Or it at least tries to negate that relationality. As such, it becomes actively passive. Adorno notes, thus, that the engaged practice risk feigning true politics and assimilating itself into ‘the brute existences against which they protest.’88

From the autonomous ontological position’s point-of-view we have just put forward, Adorno’s point is indeed true. He said that it is within the autonomous tradition that ‘nowhere more so than where it [engaged art] seems to be politically dead’89 because if the engaged practice is to ‘behave’ itself in the same manner and through the same institutions as this form of autonomous art, it will surely be completely neutralised; it will be stultifying. A proper artwork following Adorno’s argument has to be passive, not to be actively merged with ‘true’ politics. In line with Plato, ‘art has no goal except for its own perfection’—or perfecting its own autonomy.

A lot of discourse has occurred around the ‘tone’ or ‘manner’ of relationality, too. Bourriaud’s somewhat friendly approach was most explicitly put forward in relational aesthetics by the term ‘conviviality,’ which approached its subject not as competition, commodity, or generally as an ‘issue,’ but as something friendly. This, indeed, is something different than the modus operandi of competition that we learn to think our lives through in neoliberal societies. A much-heard critique of this conviviality was given by, among others, Mouffe, Laclau and Rancière, who argue that any political resistance does need, necessarily, a ‘wrong’; the articulation of a conflict; there is no ‘conflict’ without indictment. Above all, why enact new relationalities if we are not at conflict with the old ones? As Ruitenberg writes: ‘Politics comes about solely through interruption, the initial twist that institute politics as the deployment of a wrong or a fundamental dispute.’90 And Bishop adds that the friendliness proposed by Bourriaud lacks the antagonism ‘required for a vibrant democracy.’91 This brings me to the foremost criticism of ‘relational aesthetics’: that it tends towards an artificial political potential. As Bourriaud argues, ‘there is nothing more absurd either than the assertion that contemporary art does not involve any political project, or the claim that its subversive aspects are not based on any theoretical terrain.’92 It is indeed political, but remains so within the simulated bounds of the arts institution, which is why many theoreticians have wondered whether relational aesthetics in execution has lived up to its own (theoretical) premises. In its defence, this might also be why Bourriaud explicitly argues that relational aesthetics is not a genre, although saying it isn’t does not prevent it from becoming ‘genrematic.’ Nevertheless, its theoretical alliances and motives are essential to engaged practices, but as a result, the framework in which those are to be put to use is questionable because although Bourriaud argues it is not a genre, most of the production of relational aesthetics is for the arts as a discourse.

Socially Engaged Practices, or Community Art

Bishop notes that the call for participation is often linked to one of the following agendas, which were much adopted from the thinking of Debord and the Situationist International, both of which primarily aimed to critique ‘capitalist “spectacle”.’93 Bishop summarises three agendas. The first is activation, which responds to a reading of the arts as passive at the time. It expresses and attempts to realise ‘the desire to create an active subject […] newly-emancipated subject of participation.’94 This activation implies that a new sense of authorship, almost in the Beuysian sense, should come to be. The second agenda, revisiting authorship, ‘is conventionally regarded as more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of a work by a single artist.’95 Bishop names this ‘collective creativity,’ which draws not solely on the idiosyncratic of an artist but on a collage of multiple. The third agenda of collective creativity encompasses a move towards the idea of community in artistic practices, which is regarded as necessary because this move follows a ‘perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility.’96 Bishop notes this takes a lead from communism that ‘indicts the alienating and isolating effect of capitalism.’97

Socially engaged art does not merely concern a somewhat theoretical critique (as in the statements above); it concerns a hands-on approach. As Hlavajova argues: ‘In the world at this point in history, imagining things otherwise might not be enough […] in my view, to not just produce the imaginaries of a different world, but to act them out, to inhabit and embody them.”98 Acting the imagined world out embodies Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics: when it does so, as illustrated with the three agendas above, the practice could be named ‘socially engaged art.’ An example is Rick Rowe’s Project Row Houses (1994-ongoing), a project which Joshua Decter calls a kind of ‘post-Beuysian’ social sculpture. Rowe’s project features a row of shotgun houses in Houston that have been specially renovated to house single mothers and artists that work with African-American themes. In an hands-on approach to artisthood, Rowe bought the houses and set out to improve the impoverished and poor conditions of the neighbourhood quite successfully. Decter adds that: ‘It is a difficult model to replicate in other situations because it requires that the artist be an embedded member of the community,’99 and aside from that, the project unfolds according to a specific and contingent situation which is only manifest in that community. This type of artisthood scales up the domain in which artists often work, say from the studio to the community, and hence this artist could well be named an ‘organiser’—through the workings of art, this artist starts organising the social realm in which they partake.

Unlike the viscosity, pigments and brands of paint that might be the same anywhere in the world they’re applied, community-based projects like Project Row House are not the same anywhere in the world you engage with them. And although some elements of this kind of recipe have a family resemblance to one another, there is no ‘Recipe’; no list of ingredients; no cooking times; no reproducible chronology of activities you would find if you lobotomised your favourite paint brand. Hence, the most important aspect to many community-based engaged arts is that they are nearly completely contingent to the situation engaged with and always asks for different approaches and methodologies. This counts not only on a substantive level—in other words, ‘what’ it engages with—but also and foremostly on a formal level—in other words, how it engages with what it engages. This is why Bourriaud warns that ‘art is the space that produces a specific sociability,’100 and thus not the general mores of the sociability. Downey notes that ‘the artist’s “purpose” in this realm, it would seem, is to perform the role of a quasi-social worker—an individual who glues together the intellectual breaches and communicational fallouts that underwrite contemporary interrelations.’101 I would argue the term ‘quasi’ implies what differentiates this as an artistic practice from plain social work (which, as I argued before, can also be regarded artistic), namely because it produces a sociality. Bourriaud argues that this is not a unique aspect to socially engaged practices and refers to the ‘co-existence criterion’: the idea that ‘all works of art produce a model of sociability.’102 The difference would be that in this artistic practice, this production of a model of sociability is also what is aimed for. So, Jeanne van Heeswijk invites us ‘not to make art, but something that works as “art”.’103

Social Sculpture

The term ‘social sculpture’ was devised by Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) and elaborated on in his essay ‘I Am Searching for Field Character.’ He notes that ‘only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system,’ and he calls for ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.’104 As such, Beuys argues that we should regard the social system as an artwork—not solely in its current form but as an artistic activity. We should engage, and we should engage with it as (if it were) an artwork. It thus also tempts us to rethink the ontology of society, which he argues should be that of an artwork. The term he uses himself for social sculpture covers the intention of his argument more properly: ‘Soziale Plastik,’ the social as malleable whole [plastic] that we can sculpt as an artwork. As Beckmann puts it: ‘Beuys was convinced that politics had to be overcome: Social Sculpture, a design process that spanned all of society by means of human creativity, would have to replace it.’105 In extension of these arguments, Beuys states that every human being is an artist,106 or rather, potentially an artist. Not necessarily an artist of and for the arts, as many of the avant-garde artists were,107 but an artist of reality, hence more closely adhering to Foucault’s ‘art of life.’ In Foucault’s own words: ‘What strikes me is the fact that, in our society, art has become something that is related only to objects and not to individuals or to life. That art is something which is specialised or done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?’108 If we would rid Foucault’s argument of its particularity of individuals, we would reach Beuys’s definition of social sculpture, which is not an act of individual sculpting of the social realities as one artist would work on a sculpture, but rather those within a social reality sculpting simultaneously that social reality as a whole. The active partaking in this act is social sculpture. This idea stems from the social tripartite devised by Rudolph Steiner, one of Beuys’s spiritual inspirations. Three domains of society (economical life, juridical life and spiritual life) should be in an interdependent balance. Beuys’s social sculpture asks for an ‘Erweiterte Kunstbegriff’109—a broadened understanding of art within a larger being, which art has to ‘livingly think.’110

The statement definition ‘social sculpture’ can both imply that we should see sociality as an object outside of ourselves that we can sculpt and that we should sculpt how we ourselves are within social reality. In both instances, the invitation is that we should attempt to see the whole in which we exist. This is why Beuys calls for the overcoming of politics as well as its polemics and segregation, arguing that creativity could make us ‘aware […] of how the whole can be conceived.’111 It could be argued that one issue is that Beuys’s ‘whole’—strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner—risks negating any otherness (or minority, in political terms) that is at the core of any relationality, and thus inducing an overarching nature to things that we could easily regard as a modernist ‘grand narrative.’ Therefore, a modernist atmosphere drapes the term ‘social design,’ building on grand (and thus reductive and generalising) narratives, in which the artwork is at risk of becoming a technology of/for a social reality that, in doing so, it domesticates. The democratic meaning of the word everyone in Beuys’s famous claim about who can be an artist attempts to decentralise this ownership, although the word ‘everyone’ never implies that everyone is an artist. An elaboration of why Beuys was called a Fluxus artist gives a helpful perspective on this statement: ‘Fluxus was right that the question is not which are the artworks, but how we view anything [else] if we see it as art,’112 and thus how single artworks add to the experience of life. (Fluxus is an art movement, occupying a do-it-yourself mentality somewhat in the philosophical sense of the word that promotes a ‘living art,’113 according to George Meciunas, much influenced by conceptual practices such as of John Cage and Dada.)

Beuys calls for a relationality that is not only between individuals, groups, nations, or any amount of separated bodies but between all that is. He calls for the countless manifold relationality that is our existence. It is at this intersection of encounters which result in ‘the birth of the world,’114 as Bourriaud also argues. Beuys’s famous example of ‘social sculpture’ was 7000 Oak Trees (1982; Documenta VII) in the hometown of the famous international quinquennial documenta in Kassel, Germany. On his sixty-third birthday, he started planting the first of the 7000 oaks throughout the town in a large-scale event that lasted about five years. ‘Along with every oak I place a stone. The stone stands for the status quo; the tree for the desired creative process.’115 People could ‘adopt’ one of the basalt stones, with the income used to buy and plant an oak,116 so the social infrastructure enabled the project. He called this ‘das menschliche Kapital’—not to be understood in monetary sense but instead as the collective act of ‘taking responsibility for the future of planet earth.’117 Only in this co-authorship ‘would democracy be fully realised,’118 Beuys believed.Rudy Fuchs, the curator of that documenta, noted many years later that ‘the work with the 7,000 oaks is a spatial design, a process of growth and steady regeneration over time,’119 and it will continue to do so for ‘hundreds of years.’120 This sculpture is not only social in the sense that only with an appropriate social force could it be made (by far transcending the scale of a particular practice) but also because the sculpture itself will indeed influence social relations of the affiliated areas for eras to come—cooling the city, ‘greening’ the cityscape, offering its inhabitants both aesthetic pleasure and ‘meeting points,’ and offering countless critters residence. The project generally constructs a new relation to the land on which the trees stand, co-authoring new ways of being together that are tied to a specific place on earth.

A criticism often aimed at 7000 Oak Trees and similar ‘social sculpture-like’ practices is that they could just as well have been developed by a random public works employee or city official burdened with the task of maintaining public space and its greenery. My simple counterargument is that this is true: it could have been like that. The difference is that it was not: the artistic part is that it renders real that which otherwise (under the prevalence of the status quo) would have not happened, hence creating (in) reality a new reality that would otherwise have not existed at all. I deliberately did not add the word ‘never’to the start of that last sentence because on some occasions, it does indeed happen that a city official creates a ‘social sculpture.’ And in that particular instance—I hope Beuys would agree—that city official should indeed be regarded an artist, although they might never have done that work with an artistic motive (but that does help in rendering such endeavours real). Rendering that artistic motive active as a cognitive programme is an important accident transgressing the ‘unreal’/‘real’ dyad because it imposes a mentality of possibilities, of potentialities. An artistic consciousness helps extrapolate from the status quo that only works to maintain (and reproduce), not to create consciously. Hence, the Beuysian voice in one’s head helps to see that it is, in fact, also the artist who can be a city official, rather than just the other way around.

Eef Veldkamp

Eef Veldkamp (1993) is an artist, researcher and teacher for Fine Art and Design in Education at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. At ArtEZ, he researches questions around engaged practices. By intermingling artistic and philosophical research methods, he brings about subversive textual interventions that function as the point of departure for his artistic practice, in which he develops what he calls ‘counter-systems’. These are organisations erected to engage with a specific bottleneck in society, which they do through a multiplicity of forms that he terms ‘art on batteries’. He is currently investigating our mnemonic structures for dealing with societal crises, for which he is developing a new sort of souvenir.






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↑ 1

The FNV is the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions.

↑ 2

Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 9.

↑ 3

Rancière 2015, p. 20.

↑ 4

Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 92. In reference to Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 279-280.

↑ 5

Alain Badiou, Inesthetiek: filosofie, kunst, politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo, 2012), p. 21. Translated from the Dutch to English by the author.

↑ 6

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 217.

↑ 7

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 217.

↑ 8

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 217.

↑ 9

Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. xi.

↑ 10

Not to be mistaken with ‘unity.’ Wholeness concerns to what extent something is regarded as a whole on and by itself. It does not imply to be ‘one.’

↑ 11

Umberto Eco, ‘The Poetics of an Open Work,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 30.

↑ 12

Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ (Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, trans. Jay Miskowiec 1984), pp. 3-4.

↑ 13

Eco 2006, p. 36.

↑ 14

Anna van Leeuwen, ‘Een Insta-museum Zonder Werk van Kunstenaars, Heeft dat nog iets met Kunst te Maken?’ Translated by the author, De Volkskrant. January 23, 2020. Accessed on  January 30, 2020, https://www.volkskrant.nl/kijkverder/v/2020/een-insta-museum-zonder-werk-van-kunstenaars-heeft-dat-nog-iets-met-kunst-te-maken~v84949/.

↑ 15

Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer,trans. Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star(Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), pp. 17-18. The translation to English is the author’s own.

↑ 16

Rancière 2015, pp. 17-18.

↑ 17

Claudia W. Ruitenberg, ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation,’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30, no. 2. (2010): p. 217.

↑ 18

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 217.

↑ 19

Rancière 2015, p. 17.

↑ 20

Rancière, 2015 p. 18.

↑ 21

Rancière, 2015 p. 18.

↑ 22

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 12-13.

↑ 23

Rancière 2010, p. 13. Emphasis added.

↑ 24

Rancière 2015, p. 16.

↑ 25

Rancière 2015, p. 17.

↑ 26

Rancière 2015, p. 18.

↑ 27

Jacques Rancière, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art,’ Art & Research 2 no. 1 (2008): p. 4, accessed April 14, 2020, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/pdfs/ranciere.pdf.

↑ 28

Rancière 2008, p. 4.

↑ 29

Claire Bishop, ‘Introduction: Viewers as Producers,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 10.

↑ 30

At Jeanne van Heeswijk’s exhibition, the workshop within which the performance took place was called Open Access (2019). Carmen Papalia & Jeanne van Heeswijk, ‘Training for the Not Yet’ BAK. October 26, 2019. 16:00-18:00. https://www.bakonline.org/program-item/trainings-for-the-not-yet/training-program-trainings-for-the-not-yet/collective-performance-open-access-with-carmen-papalia/

↑ 31

Carmen Papalia, ‘Non-Visual Exercise,’ Blind Field Shuttle. 2010. Accessed on January 30, 2020, https://carmenpapalia.com/2010/01/01/blind-field-shuttle/.

↑ 32

Papalia 2010.

↑ 33

Papalia 2010.

↑ 34

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 11.

↑ 35

Bishop 2006, p. 11.

↑ 36

Bishop 2012, p. 12.

↑ 37

Bishop 2012, p. 12.

↑ 38

Bishop 2012, p. 22.

↑ 39

Bishop 2012, p. 22.

↑ 40

Bishop 2012, p.18.

↑ 41

Bourriaud 2002, p. 14.

↑ 42

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 41.

↑ 43

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 217.; Rancière 2015, p. 56.

↑ 44

Adorno 2007, p. 194.

↑ 45

Adorno 2007, p. 185.

↑ 46

Marcuse 1979, p. xii-xiii.

↑ 47

Marcuse 1979, p. ix.

↑ 48

Marcuse 1979, p. xi.

↑ 49

Alain Badiou, Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 42. Translated from the Dutch to English by the author.

↑ 50

Adorno 2007, p. 9

↑ 51

Marcuse 1979, p. xii.

↑ 52

Desmond Manderson, ‘Here and Now: From “Aestheticizing Politics” to “Politicizing Art”,' No Foundations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Law and Justice 13(2016):p. 2.

↑ 53

Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October Magazine 110, no. 3. (2004): p. 56.

↑ 54

Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled (Free). 1992. 303 Gallery, New York; Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October Magazine 110, no. 3. (2004): p. 56.

↑ 55

Bourriaud 2002, p. 45.

↑ 56

Bourriaud 2002, p. 28.

↑ 57

Bourriaud 2002, p. 70.

↑ 58

Bishop 2004, p. 54.

↑ 59


↑ 60

Bourriaud 2002, p. 9.

↑ 61

Bourriaud 2002, p.9

↑ 62

Bourriaud 2002, p. 14.

↑ 63

Bourriaud 2002, p. 15.

↑ 64

Bishop 2004, p. 54; Bourriaud 2002, pp. 23-24.

↑ 65

Bourriaud 2002, p. 19.

↑ 66

Nicolas Bourriaud, ‘The New Relational Landscape: Towards a Poly-Subjecthood’ in What about Activism? ed. Steven Henry Madoff (Sternberg Press: Berlin, 2019), p. 69.

↑ 67

Bourriaud 2019, p. 70.

↑ 68

https://www.biennial.com/2002/exhibition/artists/christine-hill. 2002. Accessed on December 27, 2019.

↑ 69

Helena Reckitt, ‘Forgotten Relations: Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics’ in Politics in a Glass: Case Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), p. 138.

↑ 70

Bishop 2004, p. 55.

↑ 71

Bishop 2004, p. 56.

↑ 72

Bishop 2004, p. 71.

↑ 73

Bishop 2004, p. 67.

↑ 74

Bourriaud 2002, p. 45.

↑ 75

Retrospective: Documenta X. Documenta.de. Accessed on January 30, 2020, https://www.documenta.de/en/retrospective/documenta_x.

↑ 76


↑ 77

Bourriaud 2002, p. 13.

↑ 78

Bishop 2004, p. 55.

↑ 79

Downey 2007, p. 268.

↑ 80

J.M. Bernstein, ‘Autonomy: Art’s Double Character,’in The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, ed. Fred Rush (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 146.

↑ 81

Adorno 2007, p. 194.

↑ 82

Adorno 2007, p. 194.

↑ 83

Marcuse 1979, pp. ix-x.

↑ 84

Marcuse 1979, pp. ix-x.

↑ 85

Marcuse 1979, p. 72.

↑ 86

Marcuse 1979, p. 13

↑ 87

Adorno 2007, p. 190.

↑ 88

Adorno 2007, p. 177.

↑ 89

Adorno 2007, p. 194. Adorno himself uses the term ‘committed art’ rather than ‘engaged art.’

↑ 90

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 214.

↑ 91

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 214.

↑ 92

Bourriaud 2002, p. 14.

↑ 93

Bishop 2006, p. 12.

↑ 94

Bishop 2006, p. 12.

↑ 95

Bishop 2006, p. 12.

↑ 96

Bishop 2006, p. 12.

↑ 97

Bishop 2006, p. 12.

↑ 98

Maria Hlavajova and Jonas Staal. “World-Making as Commitment” Former West: Art and the contemporary after 1989. Edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh, (Cambridge/Utrecht: MIT Press/BAK, 2017, p. 672

↑ 99

Joshua Decter, ‘Politics Burned a Hole through My Heart,’ in What about Activism? Ed. Steven Henry Madoff, (Berlin/New York: Sternberg Press, 2019), p. 22.

↑ 100

Bourriaud 2002, p. 16.

↑ 101

Anthony Downey, ‘Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics,’ Third Text 21, no. 3 (2007), p. 270.

↑ 102

Bourriaud 2002, p. 109.

↑ 103

Jeanne van Heeswijk, art lecture (ArtEZ Zwolle, August 27, 2020 10:30-12:30).

↑ 104

Joseph Beuys, ‘’I Am Searching for Field Character’,’ in Art into Society, Society Into Art, ed. and trans. Caroline Tisdall (London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1974), p. 48.

↑ 105

Lukas Beckmann, ‘The Causes Lie in the Future,’ in Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy,ed. Gene Ray. (New York: D.A.P.; the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), p. 95.

↑ 106

Joseph Beuys, ‘I am Searching for Field Character,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop. 1975. (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 126.

↑ 107

Max Reithmann, ‘In the Rubblefield of German History,’ in Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed. Gene Ray. (New York: D.A.P.; the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), p. 149.

↑ 108

Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,’ in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Vol. 1. ed. Paul Rabinow. (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 261.

↑ 109

Johannes Kronenberg in discussion with the author, February 2020.

↑ 110

Kronenberg 2020.

↑ 111

Beckmann 2001, p. 95.

↑ 112

Anna Dezeuze, ‘Everyday Life, “Relational Aesthetics” and the ‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace”,’ Journal of Visual Art Practice 5, no. 3. P. 145; Arthur C. Danto. The Transfiguration of Commonplace, 2002, p. 31.

↑ 113

George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963.

↑ 114

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. (Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), p. 19. In reference to the pre-Socratic ‘atomists.’

↑ 115

Beckmann 2001, p. 109.

↑ 116

Anja Marbus, ‘Engagement – de 7000 eiken van Joseph Beuys,’ in ArtTube (2015). Accessed on February 12, 2020, https://www.arttube.nl/blog/engagement-de-7000-eiken-van-joseph-beuys.

↑ 117

Citing Joseph Beuys, translated from the German to English by Rudy Fuchs. ‘Geduld’ in De Groene Amsterdammer, October 14, 2015. Accessed on February 12, 2020, https://www.groene.nl/artikel/geduld.

↑ 118

Beuys 2006, p. 125

↑ 119

Rudy Fuchs, ‘Geduld’ in De Groene Amsterdammer, October 14, 2015. No. 42. Accessed on February 12, 2020, https://www.groene.nl/artikel/geduld. Translated to the Dutch to English by the author.

↑ 120

Fuchs 2015.