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A struggle at the roots of the mind. Brian Hand

Wed Nov 11th, 2015

IMMA invited Brian Hand, artist, writer and lecturer, to respond to this subject. In his essay, A struggle at the roots of the mind: service and solidarity in dialogical, relational and collaborative perspectives in art, Hand focuses on three aspects of Participatory Arts: Dialogical Art, Relational Aesthetics and Collaborative/ Collective Art Projects, as a means of exploring some of the key issues which inform and shape contemporary Participatory Arts practice.

Raymond Williams in his definition of community offers the dialectic of solidarity and service (working with people or voluntary work sometimes paid), and sees this dialectic on a philosophical level as operating between idealism and sentimentality.1 For Williams solidarity equals positive change whereas service equals the paternalistic status quo.2 In this short essay I will explore how this dialectic between service and solidarity in relation to concepts and practices surrounding art forms that have prioritised an active social dimension has been conceptualised in recent art theory. A socially engaged or community based art practice is a current theme in discussions around contemporary art. This subject is very broad so to lessen the confusion I will look at just three distinct participatory approaches: dialogical art, relational aesthetics and collaborative/collective art projects.

In the past 50 years, community based visual arts have emerged within working class and marginal communities both here and elsewhere and are now a well established set of practices aligned with the broad principles of community development. While participatory arts in general are recognised as an important tool in a bigger scheme of grass roots social empowerment, a weakness in state supported community based arts activities, besides inadequate funding, has often been the top down approach of sponsoring agencies/institutions. In this familiar scenario artists are parachuted in and out and little attention is given to long term engagement. In our age of consumer orientated individualism, community, as Homi Bhabha reminds us, is something you develop out of.3Community can imply a herd like conformity, a suppression of difference, or simply the ideal of individual freedom. The Arts Council has dropped the once popular term ‘community arts’ for the more neutral and arms length term ‘participatory arts’.

Community, Bhabha outlines, is synonymous with the territory of the minority and the discourses of community are themselves ‘minority’ discourses incommensurable with the discourse of civil society.4 Community, he argues is the antagonist supplement of modernity. It becomes the border problem of the diasporic, the migrant, and the refugee. Community in this sense almost has an atavistic resonance because it predates capitalism and modern society and leads a “subterranean, potentially subversive life within [civil society] because it refuses to go away”.5 In this sense invoking community is at once to locate a togetherness and paradoxically an estrangement from or antagonism to the notion of a frame or limit to what constitutes a community. As Grant Kester argues:

The community comes into existence […] as a result of a complex process of political self-definition. This process often unfolds against the back drop of collective modes of oppression (racism, sexism, class oppression, etc.) but also within a set of shared cultural and discursive traditions. It takes place against the grain of a dominant culture that sustains itself by recording systematic forms of inequality (based on race, class, gender, and sexuality) as a product of individual failure or nonconformity.6

There is, to follow Bhabha, Nancy and Pontbriand, a contemporary value in the concept of community because it somehow evades the grasp of the bundle of discourses which describe it and remains opaque to itself.7 As Douglas observes:

In ‘community’ the personal relations of men and women appear in a special light. They form part of the ongoing process which is only partly organised in the wider social ‘structure’. Whereas ‘structure’ is differentiated and channels authority through the system, in the context of ‘community’, roles are ambiguous, lacking hierarchy, disorganised. ‘Community’ in this sense has positive values associated with it; good fellowship, spontaneity, warm contact … Laughter and jokes, since they attack classification and hierarchy, are obviously apt symbols for expressing community in this sense of unhierarchised, undifferentiated social relations.8

Indeed, while the definition of community resists empirical study and interpretation there is something similar in the resistance to profit in the community artwork which, because of multiple authorship/ownership, remains unexchangeable and therefore economically unviable within the traditional art market and auction houses.

Dialogical Art

Dialogical art or aesthetics is an umbrella term borrowed from Bakhtin and Freire by Kester. Kester’s work tries to give legitimacy and a sound theoretical grounding to the alternative practices of community arts, recognising them as new forms of cultural production. To paraphrase Kester’s nuanced arguments: dialogical art aims to “replace the ‘banking’ style of art in which the artist deposits an expressive content into a physical object, to be withdrawn later by the viewer, with a process of dialogue and collaboration”.9 Community based participatory art is a process led, rather than a product led, dialogical encounter and participating entails sharing a desire to unveil or discover the power structures of reality with a view to creatively imagining a contestatory and oppositional platform where radical and plural democracy might take root. According to Kester, and borrowing from arguments by Walter Benjamin, art is not a fixed category/entity or thing, except that it reflects the values and interests of the dominant class. For a host of art movements, especially avant garde ones, their relationship with the dominant order is channelled through a dialectical and often contradictory relationship where a specific and important discursive system constructs art as a repository for values actively suppressed within the dominant culture. “There is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play this role; rather, particular formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frames, and preceding art works”.10

So while the challenge art poses to fixed categorical systems and instrumentalising modes of thought is important, it is not necessarily simply located in the artwork itself as a discreet, bounded, formally innovative object. Rather Kester argues that the tendency to locate this principle of indeterminacy solely in the physical condition or form of the work of art prevents us from grasping an important act of performative, collaborative art practice. “An alternative approach would require us to locate the moment of indeterminateness, of open-ended and liberatory possibility, not in the perpetually changing form of the artwork qua object, but in the very process of communication and solidarity that the artwork catalyzes”.11 To uncouple the material form from social practice is not as straightforward as Kester makes out because both are overlayed and imbricated thoroughly in the history of Modernism.

For Kester, dialogical art is an approach that separates itself from both the traditional non-communicative, mute and hermetic abstract modernist art (Rothko, Pollock, Newman) and the more strident innovative heterogeneous forms of shock based avant garde work (such as the Futurists, Surrealists and Dada movements or the more recent examples of work such as Christoph Schlingensief’s public art project Foreigners Out!) designed to jolt the hapless alienated viewer into a new awareness. Kester argues that both anti-discursive traditions hold in common a suspicion about shared community values and that ‘art for the people’ suggests an assault on artistic freedom, individualism or even worse raises the spectre of fascism and Stalinism.12 While such fears are grounded in history, in many peaceful and settled democracies not under immediate threats from extreme ideology, the tradition of anti-discursivity, isolation and negation still resonates in mainstream aesthetic practices.

Dialogical art, or conversational art as Bhabha termed it, foregrounds the encounter and interpretation of the co-producers of the art work and as such is against the traditional scenario where a given object or artifact produced by an individual artist is offered to the viewer. Some examples for Kester of solidarity orientated dialogical art include some of the work of WochenKlausur, Suzanne Lacey, Hope Sandrow, Ne Pas Plier, Ultra Red, Maurice O’Connell and the ROUTES project in Belfast in 2002. Examples of work closer to the service or paternalistic end of the spectrum for Kester, include some of the work of Alfredo Jaar, Fred Wilson, and Dawn Dedeaux.

For Kester there are just too many examples of institutional led community based work by well known and established artists that reinforce the neo Victorian view of a given ‘disadvantaged’ “community or constituency as an instrumentalised and fictively monolithic entity to be ‘serviced’ by the visiting artist”.13 As Sholette has observed, “the avant garde promise to drag art out of the museums and into life is today remarkably visible in all the wrong places. Museums and foundations now claim to nurture art as social activism”.14

Relational Aesthetics

The criticism that participatory projects in the art world can be toothless is clearly present in the critique of relational aesthetics by Bishop, Foster, and more recently Martin.15 Relational aesthetics is a term coined by French curator and writer Nicolas Bourriaud and relates to a diverse body of work made by artists in the 1990s, such as Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Felix Gonzalez- Torres, Vanessa Beecroft and Philippe Parreno, that foregrounds interactivity, conviviality and relationality as the subject of its artistic practice. This social rather than socialist turn is seen as a direct response from the privileged art world to the increasingly regimented and technologically administered society. Again like the theory of dialogical art there is little emphasis in relational aesthetics on the art object as such and what the artist “produces, first and foremost, is relations between people and the world by way of aesthetic objects”.16 There is a further similarity in that relational aesthetics rejects the non-communicative strategies of autonomous abstract art that avoided content like the plague. Bourriaud’s argument is provocative and interesting in that it sees art from a Marxist perspective as an apparatus for reproducing the all encompassing hegemonic capitalist ideology, but due to the complexity of the cultural sphere in the age of information there are slips and gaps within the reproduction of the dominant ideology that can be exploited by certain artists as creative heteronomous interstices. Hence while acknowledging on the one hand institutionally supported contemporary art’s complete immersion in capitalist relations and submission to capitalist imperatives, Bourriaud believes that relational art can, within this system:

create free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the ‘communication zones’ that are imposed on us.17

It is a French tradition to invest in art as a strategically resistant activity and Sartre viewed the primary aim of art to challenge the established interests within society, so Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics sets itself in opposition to the culture of commodified individualism. As Liam Gillick claims: his object based work is only activated by an encounter with an audience. “My work is like the light in the fridge, it only works when there are people there to open the door. Without people, it’s not art – it’s something else stuff in a room”.18 This is a common perception of the experience of theatre, where the audience gathers and forms a body for the duration of the performed event. The limits of this interactive empowerment of an audience community can be seen in the marketable success of the individual signature of the international artists associated with relational aesthetics. As Adorno observed about the underlying use value of the exhibition, “the words museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. They testify to the neutralisation of culture”.19 Yet while Bourriaud celebrates the role of the artist as a service provider he does caution:

Of course, one fears that these artists may have transformed themselves under the pressure of the market into a kind of merchandising of relations and experience. The question we might raise today is, connecting people, creating interactive, communicative experience: What for? What does the new kind of contact produce? If you forget the “what for?” I’m afraid you’re left with simple Nokia art – producing interpersonal relations for their own sake and never addressing their political aspects.20

Our current era is characterised as the era of the service led consumer economy and many artists are now earning a modest income from the payment of fees from cultural institutions for participating in exhibitions and other activities including institution led participatory arts programmes like those at IMMA or indeed temporary public art programmes funded by percent for the arts schemes. As Sholette observes:

cultural tourism and community-based art practice must be thought of as a local consequence of the move towards a privatized and global economy […] the remnants of public, civic culture aim to make art appear useful to the voting population as a form of social service and tourism.21

Collaborative/Collective Art Projects

Solidarity implies a different kind of economic relationship, something more reciprocal and committed than financially dependent. Collaborative groups are the final approach that I wish to consider in this discussion on participation and the work they make “can raise complex questions about participation among artists – not just issues of process (Group Material and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. operated by sometimes tortuously arrived-at consensus), but also of credit and ownership”.22 Celebrated art groups of more than two members in the past 100 years include the Omega workshop, The Russian Constructivists, Berlin Dada, the Situationists, Gutai, CoBrA, Fluxus, Art & Language, the Guerilla Girls, the Black Audio Film Collective, Act Up, Gran Fury, RTMark, Critical Art Ensemble, Paper Tiger and Temporary Services. With the exception of the writings of Sholette, Gablik and edited publications by Thompson and Sholette and Sholette and Stimson, contemporary work made by collaborative groups has often failed to merit serious critical attention.23 Having co-founded and worked with the collaborative groups Blue Funk, The Fire Department and 147, as well as participating with the collective RepoHistory, I can speak from experience that there are multiple challenges in group art making and art activism. Art collectives are risky as sharing does not come easily to visual artists and the tacit knowledge of one’s practice can be difficult to communicate. Group formation is interesting in terms of how a shared political position can motivate action and organise a group to tackle an issue. A transitive relationship is implied in making collaborative work and becoming engaged in the wider social and political arena. Conversely the lack of artists’ groups signals a lack of problematic issues within the cultural/communal sphere or is it a sign of a more widespread inertness where we have become what Agamben sees as “the most docile and cowardly social body that has ever existed in human history?”24

Joining or forming a collaborative art group or collective may impoverish you, but it is paradoxically good for one’s individual identity and at least your life expectancy. As our society dismantles most of the traditional groups like the nuclear family for example and replaces them with consumer orientated lifestyles, collective identity can re-value individual participation and self worth. As Habermas has argued “a person can constitute an inner centre only to the extent that he or she can find self expression in communicatively generated interpersonal relations”.25 In this sense, the agency to express solidarity or opposition with the other, is significantly different to the relentless mass organisation of our lives into stratified data banks, market segments, audiences, biometrics, google accounts and biological samples, what Deleuze calls the administered forms of collective control.

Judging work, be it dialogical, relational or collaborative on a scale from solidarity to service asks of the reader to reflect on the social dimension of participation and the material dimension of social practice from aesthetic/political perspectives. The future that is mapped out in phrases like the ‘knowledge economy’, ‘virtual communities’ and ‘cultural industries’ is a future that threatens solidarity through corporate control. I hope artists, students, and audiences at IMMA remain alive to dealing with these complex forces and engage with what Williams generously believed art could be: a struggle at the roots of mind to figure out an embodied sense of creative engagement with self-composition and social composition.26

© Brian Hand, 2011


  1. Raymond Williams, Keywords, London: Fontana, 1988.
  2. Virginia Nightingale, Studying Audiences: The Shock of the New, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 14.
  3. Homi Bhabha, ‘Conversational Art’ in Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson (eds.), Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art, Cambridge, Mass and London: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 38-47.
  4. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.
  5. Partha Chatterjee cited in Homi Bhabha, 1994, p. 230.
  6. Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, California: University of California Press, 2004, p. 150.
  7. For this broad discussion see Homi Bhabha, 1994; Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Trans. Peter Connor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991 and Chantal Pontbriand, ‘Jean-Luc Nancy / Chantal Pontbriand: an exchange’, Parachute Contemporary Art Magazine, October 01, 2000, pp. 14-30.
  8. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 303.
  9. Grant Kester, 2004, p. 10.
  10. Ibid, p. 90.
  11. Ibid, p. 90.
  12. Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art’ in Variant 9, 1999.
  13. Grant Kester, 2004, p. 171.
  14. Gregory Sholette, ‘Some Call it Art: From Imaginary Autonomy to Autonomous Collectivity’, pdf, 2001.
  15. See Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, in October, 110, 2004, pp. 51-80; Claire Bishop, Installation: A Critical History, London: Tate Publishing, 2005; Hal Foster, ‘Arty Party’, in London Review of Books, 25:23, 4, 2003 and Stewart Martin, ‘Critique of Relational Aesthetics’, Third Text, 21(4), 2007, pp. 369-386.
  16. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 2002, p. 42.
  17. Ibid, p. 16.
  18. Liam Gillick cited in Claire Bishop, 2004, p. 61.
  19. Theodor Adorno quoted in Rubén Gallo, ‘The Mexican Pentagon Adventures in Collectivism during the 1970s’, in Blake Stimson, and Greg Sholette (eds.), Collectivism After Modernism, pp. 165-193, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 170.
  20. Nicolas Bourriaud, ‘Public Relations’, Interview with Bennett Simpson, Artforum, April 2001.
  21. Gregory Sholette, 2001.
  22. Robert Atkins, ‘Politics, Participation, and Meaning in the Age of Mass Media’, in Rudolf Frieling (ed.), The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, pp. 50-66, London: Thames and Hudson, 2008, p. 58.
  23. See Gregory Sholette, 2001; Suzi Gablik, ‘Connective Aesthetics: Art After Individualism’, in Suzanne Lacy (ed.), Mapping the New Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, pp. 74-87; Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette, (eds.), The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, Cambridge Mass and London: MIT Press, 2004 and Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (eds.), 2007.
  24. Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? California: Stanford University Press 2009, p. 10.
  25. Jürgen Habermas quoted in Peter Dews (ed.), Habermas Autonomy and Solidarity, London: Verso, 1992, p. 38.
  26. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 206-212.


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