As much as I admire her work, it occurs to me that there is a fundamental contradiction within Claire Bishop’s conception of participatory art (2012)1. Bishop explicitly stresses that her focus is on forms of art that involve literal social participation, but at the same time ascribes the aesthetic quality of this work to its capacity to reach a non-directly participatory audience. Participatory art practice figures as a kind of medial theatre that gains aesthetic currency only inasmuch as it discovers effective means to be more broadly communicated. Participatory art, she argues, must obtain a formal coherence that reaches out beyond the immediate participatory context. In this manner the aesthetic contours of participatory art shift away from any dimension of participatory immediacy towards aspects of medial identity. We have then, in a sense, the conditions of any other piece of art – the inevitable plays of delay and distance that are constitutive of (modern) aesthetic experience. If aesthetics is fundamentally concerned with the problematic manifestation of community – of a community that never quite substantially exists, that can only take shape via veils, representations, metaphors, all kinds of displacement – then Bishop is still concerned with this very same medial pull. She works to describe the non-participatory potential of participatory art.

What is perhaps needed is a less clearly established boundary between the participatory and the non-participatory; one that recognises that aesthetic practice, whether participatory or not, is always at once intimately concerned with realising community while also endlessly deferring any possibility that it may simply appear. Rather than firmly distinguishing between work that literally involves participation and work that does not, it seems more pertinent to consider how art both summons and withdraws from community (social engagement). There is a need to acknowledge a more general context of complex and paradoxical orientation that involves not only efforts to realise community directly (the spectacle of participation) but also and equally deliberate efforts to turn away from all thought of its realisation (Bishop’s “via negativa“).

  1. Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso
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6 Responses to Participation/Mediation

  1. Lucas says:

    Hi Brogan

    I’ve not read the whole book yet, so I hesitate to pronounce one way or another.

    However, if I may make a request – could you define “medial identity”, a term which you use in this post?


    • brogan says:

      Hi Lucas,
      Medial identity refers to aspects of an artwork that do not function immediately and intimately, that are instead based upon distance and delay – a kind of afterimage in which the work takes specifically aesthetic shape. I know this needs extended explanation. This post is really a kind of note to self in the process of building a longer argument.
      In terms of a work that does take the aesthetic contours of immediate participation seriously – the mingled sense of absorption and loss this entails – I’d suggest Yukio Mishima’s discussion of his involvement in a Japanese community festival (Sun and Steel). Have not read for decades…
      Maybe also Nietzsche on the Dionysian.

  2. Lucas says:

    thanks brogan

    surely any experience which generates a story-worthy narrative is subject to the distance and delay of ‘medial identity’?

    in reality, is there any event which is completely consumed by its own present experience so that nothing leaks out the edges to travel to another time and space?

    • brogan says:

      Hi Lucas,


      Probably nothing avoids dimensions of mediation, but does this mean that only those elements that exceed the terrain of immediacy have aesthetic status? Obviously a difficult issue, because from a post-structuralist perspective, the very notion of immediacy is suspect. There can only be layers of mediation, without any possibility of discerning some kernel of authentic experience. I guess part of the problem involves assuming some grand contrast between truth cast as immediacy and the apparent falsehood of mediation, when the two are perhaps better conceived as intertwined in all kinds of complex ways.

      The issue for me is that it is not just the story that is told afterwards that lends an aesthetic aspect to socially engaged practice, there are also the stories (maybe the wrong term) that happen within. These may or may not take neatly communicable shape. I don’t have Bishop’s book in front of me, but it seems to me that Artificial Hells focuses almost entirely on aspects of communicable form that exceed the immediate context. In slightly anachronistic critical terms, Bishop seems determined to regard participatory practice in Apollonian terms, ignoring Dionysian features of flow, formlessness and loss. While the latter values are scarcely aesthetically sufficient in themselves, they would seem to deserve some consideration alongside the passage into legibly communicable aesthetic form.

      • Is it really not possible for something to avoid dimensions of mediation?

        A mystic once asked … “Can you not see the flower without naming it …. Can you not look at a colour without labelling it?” (or words to that effect)

  3. Lucas says:

    hah! the reason you’ve not got the book in front of you is that you lent it to me!

    Your point is well made – it’s what I asked Claire Bishop about in her presentation in Sydney.

    Obviously the only things that are available candidates for anyone to discuss in a book, are those which have exceeded the immediate context and have generated documentation of themselves.

    By definition, aspects of flow, formlessness and loss, are lost to historical documentation. How can we include them (other than by pointing to their general ‘ineffability’) in any tangible discussion?

    (One recalls M.Blanchot on the everyday… by definition being “that which escapes”…)

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