“Social practice art” is, in its least complacent forms, a genre that opens the viewer onto something subtle, difficult and time consuming, namely encountering others. To encounter an other is to tolerate the possibility that the other is not you; indeed that she is irreducibly different from you. To encounter an other is to tolerate the experience of some limit to your own understanding. Social practice art— albeit ideally, potentially, and fitfully—stages that kind of encounter.
Claire Bishop, in her book-length study of the genre Artificial Hells (2012) argues that there is a strong tendency in contemporary discourse to describe this unwieldy form of art practice either in terms of socio-political efficacy or in terms of aesthetic criteria. 1
Bishop deplores this binary, and she is right to do so, as it raises a number of—to my mind—irresolvable questions, such as: How is the socio-political threshed from the non-socio-political? Which aesthetics are “real” and which are illusory, and who judges this, and by what criteria? Are these criteria anti-racist? Feminist? Post-colonial? Anti-imperialist? Etc.
I differ from Bishop on two fundamental levels, however, regardless of what might appear to be a shared agenda to make space in the discourse for discomfort, aggression and risk. 1
I read Artificial Hells
as an argument for stable criteria, for clear guidelines with which to govern the political in art based on a classical understanding of the political role of aesthetics. I reject this basis for judgement on the grounds that universal objectivity and classical criteria are not innocent, are not anti-racist, and are not feminist. Further, I hold that what the discourse needs is not strong rhetorical walls but complex systems with which to describe what happens between people who are not always self-present.
Bishop, by contrast, does not see social practice art as that which stages an irreducible encounter between subjects. She sees it as an aggressive act of individual self-expression, as something authored and therefore contained by the name of its author. Bishop’s insistence on the artist as the exclusive point of origin for meaning leads her to argue that ethics, some responsibility to the other, has no place in the discourse, whereas I would put ethics at the very center of art’s political engagement today. 1
I define ethics as the ability and willingness to face what exceeds an individual’s capacity for objectivity; that which overwhelms universal criteria for judgment. 1
This distinction is not rhetorical. I am concerned with how to describe and analyze that which is out of control in social practice and how to deal with the fact that the artist cannot be held entirely responsible. I am calling for some response to this epistemological instability that does involve a return to the fantasy of artistic autonomy, and that resists the temptation to figure forth a strongman understanding of the artist. I am profoundly convinced that if we do not have the courage to tolerate epistemological instability in artwork, we will be unequal to the task of tolerating it ethically in “real life.”
CREATIVITY vs. ART
What follows is a close reading primarily of the first chapter in Bishop’s book. Why read so closely? Because her argument is often misrecognized as a radical one and it is difficult to think of an alternative to intellectual conservatism without a deep understanding of how it operates. Therefore, the first point I want to make is about how Bishop defines her terms. Her argument opens with “creativity” understood as a quality of production, one that supports the economic interests of the UK’s New Labour party.
Bishop writes: "New Labour considered it important to develop creativity in schools – not because everyone must be an artist (as Joseph Beuys declared), but because the population is increasingly required to assume the individualization associated with creativity: to be entrepreneurial, embrace risk, look after their own self-interest, perform their own brands, and be willing to self-exploit." 1
Bishop associates creativity and risk, with the will to self-exploitation and in this move she deftly separates the artist, a radical essence symbolized by Joseph Beuys, from the process of individualization through which the subject disavows capitalism’s domination, apparently content with the illusion of the self-determination that “creativity” comes to signify. The artist, according to this logic, may do “creative” things but he also does something more, something that is not useful to New Labour, here understood as metonym for neoliberalism: “[A]rtistic practice has an element of critical negation and an ability to sustain contradiction that cannot be reconciled with the quantifiable imperatives of positivist economics.” 1
Art is thus characterized as something in excess of its material conditions, while creativity loses its ability to signify outside the frame New Labour has produced for it.
What is at stake for Bishop in threshing art from its imposter sibling “creativity” is a political value she sees in antagonism, or a space for contestation. She writes: "Artists and works of art can operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalizes for more efficacious profiteering." 1
This argument is refreshing on one level: Enough with the vague, ad-hoc community-gardens whose stated purpose is to create and demonstrate the political value of together-ness. Enough with the art-cliques making food together in small groups of friends and lovers and calling it a prelude to revolution. This is a rappelle à l’ordre
for the new, post-relational aesthetics generation—let’s put the gate back up and make sure that everyone’s (art) papers are in order. No dubious social workers masquerading as artists. To each his own sphere of activity.
However: if creativity (read: complicity) and art (read: capacity for negation and therefore politics) must be separate in order for each to exist as whole and potent categories, it becomes necessary to police their division. According to Bishop, it is “through the discourse of creativity [that] the elitist activity of art is democratized,” which she claims “leads to business rather than Beuys.” 1
Art is diluted, transformed into an economic creature through its encounter with discourses of creativity. The privileged position Bishop accords to art when she marks this stark divide between business and Beuys actually masks much (most?) of art’s already existing capacity for complicity with neoliberal economic policy. 1
The binary she constructs amounts to a call for purity in the support structures that underpin the art world, a purity that also assumes that art is an elitist category of production whose popularization categorically destroys its potential for critical negation.
The very construction of a binary where one side is complicit and the other exemplifies radicalism-via-negation misunderstands, I think, the nature of complicity. One of Jacques Derrida’s fundamental contributions to the analysis of power was this: that which destabilizes the order of things, that which provokes rupture (or politics), is precisely that which has been excluded so as to allow power to constitute such an order in the first place. 1
The relationship between practices that support order and practices that rupture it is not a binary one in his view—complicity and radicalism are mutually constitutive, and never inherent in a thing for which autonomy can be claimed. It is not the case that art practices are either radical or complicit. It is not the case that creativity either serves neoliberalism or radical politics. This binary is essentially false and therefore unproductive as a means to articulate the radical (political) potential of participatory practices.
Part of the binary’s political inadequacy is its inability, according to Derrida, to account for aporiae in the structure of power. Aporiae are absences within discourse, blank spaces that attest to the existence of experiences unutterable but still structurally operative in society. For example, structural racism—or homophobia, or misogyny— cannot be addressed through critical negation alone because these are internal to the discourse with which they would be negated. 1
Bishop’s argument for some space in which art is divorced from neoliberalism is not only unequal to the political task of making injustice more universally legible, it also constitutes a fantasy of art’s innocence that should be categorically rejected on ethical grounds.
AUTONOMY vs. INSTRUMENTALIZATION
According to Bishop, art’s value should be established in terms independent of what is useful for development and in terms nuanced enough to allow for true experimentation without specific ends or goals. Whatever art is, it is most relevant when it is working against, rather than with, neoliberal capitalism’s drive to produce stable symbols such as branded cities/nations/communities/sub-cultural identifications. Bishop and I agree; the necessity of art’s freedom from quantitative analysis is extremely important. In support of this point, she cites a short article on the work of the artists’ collective Superflex, written by Charles Esche in 2001. 1
Yet this text and the work it describes, the object Bishop chooses to build her case against the “sociological” analysis of art, 1
is an inappropriate example for this point.
According to Bishop, Esche defends his value judgment of Tenantspin, “an internet-based TV station for the elderly residents of a run-down tower block in Liverpool,” by measuring the project’s worth exclusively as a “tool” to strengthen the tenants’ experience of community. 1
She writes, “Esche intersperses his article with long quotes from governmental reports about the state of British council housing indicating the primacy of a sociological context for understanding the artists’ project.” 1
The sociological lens is improperly applied to a project that should be evaluated purely in aesthetic terms, in Bishop’s view.
Although Esche uses sociological analyses to establish context for his discussion of Tenantspin (its site is, actually, British council housing) he seems uninterested in measurement or evaluation in the instrumental sense. In fact he argues that social transformation necessarily entails aesthetic transformation.
He writes: "Superchannel [the over-arching project name of which Tenantspin was a part] can change the image of both the tower block itself and the residents – and a negative image is one of the greatest contributory factors in the tower block’s twenty-year decline. […] Could a renewed attention and commitment to tower blocks suggest a rebirth of the social and the public imagination?" 1
For Esche, socio-political transformation does not take place exclusively in terms of material infrastructure. The towers need to be reimagined and this experience of imagination is neither sociological nor purely aesthetic but is, rather, precisely where the aesthetic collapses into the social. Tenantspin produces a space in which tenants can negotiate—through an imaginative exercise—how their experiences of living together could be ordered differently. In Bishop’s interpretation of Esche, “the major achievement of this project is that it has forged a ‘stronger sense of community in the building.’”
When read in its entirety, Esche’s analysis is in fact much more complex:
"With the proposed attempts to create more high-rise Superchannels across Liverpool and ultimately throughout Europe, it might be that communication networks allow a different notion of the public to emerge, one defined by shared interest rather than neighboring geographic space." 1
Esche describes how television and the Internet, conventionally critiqued for severing people from one another and encouraging consumption, became unlikely binding agents for the “sense of community in the building”. 1
He suggests that the project challenges reductionist definitions of both community and public engagement. The effect of the project on the community (which is not the same thing as “effectiveness”, nor is it synonymous with “achievement”) is something that happens as a side effect of a project about the complexities of communication. 1
The crux of Bishop’s reading of this project and Esche’s analysis —and therefore of her anti-sociological theory—rests on what she identifies as Esche’s failure to address “what it means for Superflex to be doing this project as art”, as a result of which analyses like Esche’s become “indistinguishable from government arts policy with its emphasis on verifiable outcomes”. 1
I think Bishop’s intellectual move is too quick; it does not fully grasp Esche’s attempt to articulate the aesthetic and the political realms’ interdependency in Tenantspin
, his suggestion that this project works to counter instrumentalization by “the neoliberal new world order” rather than re-produce it.
I read this misrecognition as an instance of Bishop’s deep commitment to art’s autonomy, which runs throughout her work and is often in tension with its socio-political analog, subjective autonomy. “One of the aims of this book,” Bishop writes, “is to emphasize the aesthetic in the sense of aesthesis: an autonomous realm of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality.” 1
She swiftly draws a distinction between the “work of art” as something autonomous and “the autonomy of our experience
in relation to art,” and her political argument for aesthetic autonomy is based on Jacques Rancière’s work, which she characterizes this way:
"Rancière argues that the system of art as we have understood it since the Enlightenment – a system he calls ‘the aesthetic regime of art’ – is predicated precisely on a tension and confusion between autonomy (the desire for art to be at one remove from means–ends relationships) and heteronomy (that is, the blurring of art and life)." 1
Bishop argues that the tension produced by the (binary) struggle between autonomy and heteronomy leads to an acknowledgment “that [art] is a sphere both at one remove from politics and yet always already political because it contains the promise of a better world.” 1
Art allows for the imagination of an alternative to what is and it is in this allowance that art is political. Bishop is gesturing towards a grey zone, an overlap Rancière’s work describes between art and politics. Yet Bishop argues for such a grey zone on the basis of a textual example in which there is no interaction between fully individuated subjects, there is only an encounter between a man and the statue of a naked woman. Her example is especially troubling for the gendered terms of the (better) world that is promised when autonomy and heteronomy are reconciled:
"For Rancière, the primal scene of this new regime is the moment when, in Schiller’s fifteenth letter On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), he describes a Greek statue known as the Juno Ludovisi as a specimen of ‘free appearance’. Following Kant, Schiller does not judge the work as an accurate depiction of the goddess, nor as an idol to be worshipped. Rather, he views it as self-contained, dwelling in itself without purpose or volition, and potentially available to all. As such, the sculpture stands as an example of – and promises – a new community, one that suspends reason and power in a state of equality." 1
“Freedom is not an individual’s projection onto something external and mute.”
The nude, immobile female body figures forth a balance between reason and power on the grounds that while she is a body with which the viewer can identify, she has no individual will and is therefore universally available for projection. The viewer’s freedom depends on the goddess’ subjective abstraction, in other words. It is against this understanding of the feminine subject’s role in constituting some kind of aesthetico-political grey zone that I argue for the urgency of an ethical analysis; one in which no one is reduced to subjective abstraction in the name of another’s autonomy. This is a feminist argument in the context of Bishop’s text, but the point has broader consequences: freedom is not an individual’s projection onto something external and mute.
Aesthetic autonomy becomes an especially useful argument for Bishop when it allows her to argue explicitly for art’s exemption from an analysis based on ethics. Her point is at first an incredibly attractive, polemical stance both against polite, well-behaved art (remember the community garden) and against simplistic dismissals of the role aesthetics play in social and political life. Moralism closes down experimentation, discourages productive risk, and naturalizes its own exclusions—agreed. 1
Moralism and ethics are not interchangeable concepts, however, and Bishop’s wish to exclude ethics is often confused, I think, with the (quite sensible) argument that being nice does not constitute a political statement. She is in fact making two arguments: one is in favor of productive antagonism, but the other is a rejection of the obligation to the other that ethics entails. Bishop rejects ethical models that might describe meaning (aesthetic or social) as something made between people rather than as something authored by one person. She bases her alternative on a psychoanalytical reading of the term. Bishop paraphrases Lacan, who is reading Kant through the lens of the Marquis de Sade, is as follows: 1
"The task is to relate this concern [ethics] more closely to aesthesis. Some key terms to emerge here are enjoyment and disruptions […] Jacques Lacan connects the latter [psychoanalysis] to aesthetics via a discussion of sublimation, proposing an ethics founded on a Sadean reading of Kant. Setting individual jouissance against the application of a universal maxim, Lacan argues that it is more ethical for a subject to act in accordance with his or her (unconscious) desire than to modify his or her behavior for the eyes of the Big Other (society, family, law, expected norms)." 1
In a footnote to this section, Bishop directs her reader to page eighty of Lacan’s seventh Seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60), but the quote below is the only place on that page where Sade and Kant are directly counter-posed. Interestingly, that passage discusses the role pain plays in taking possession of the object of desire:
"Kant is of the same opinion as Sade. For in order to reach das Ding absolutely, to open the floodgates of desire, what does Sade show us on the horizon? In essence, pain. The other's pain as well as the pain of the subject himself, for on occasion they are simply one and the same thing. To the degree that it involves forcing an access to the Thing, the outer extremity of pleasure is unbearable to us." 1
Lacan compares Kant and Sade to make the point that both posit the pain involved in reaching the object of desire as the universal ground for morality—pain as an experience of the other that is both extremely pleasurable and intolerably painful simultaneously. Although fascinating in the sense that the other is presented as foundational to a subject’s understanding of his own desire, this passage does little to substantiate Bishop’s reading of Lacanian ethics. Further, although Lacan makes repeated reference to Sade throughout the seventh seminar, he is also very clear about his approbation of Sadean ethics:
"If one eliminates from morality every element of sentiment, if one removes or invalidates all guidance to be found in sentiments, then in the final analysis the Sadean world is conceivable - even if it is its inversion, its caricature - as one of the possible forms of the world governed by a radical ethics, by the Kantian ethics as elaborated in 1788." 1
“I reject the idea that there is political freedom in traumatic dissociation from society, either for the subject or collectively.”
This passage describes Lacan’s interest in Sade as cautionary: radical ethics would divest obligation from every encounter, but it would also rule out affect as the ground on which to make an ethical decision. In Lacan’s view, Sade champions a radical form of subjective autonomy. Ethics here issue from somewhere so internal to the subject that they precede even her own emotions. The appeal of such a position to Bishop, perhaps, is that this form of ethics mirrors the aesthetic autonomy she argues for throughout Artificial Hells.
The only other passage in Lacan’s text in which all three terms—Sade, Kant, and aesthetics—are in dialogue is on page 261, and it illuminates the consequences of Bishop’s position on ethics rather starkly. Lacan writes:
"In the typical Sadean scenario, suffering doesn't lead the victim to the point where he is dismembered and destroyed. It seems rather that the object of all torture is to retain the capacity of being an indestructible support. Analysis shows clearly that the subject separates out a double of himself who is made inaccessible to destruction, so as to make it support what, borrowing a term from the realm of aesthetics, one cannot help calling the play of pain. For the space in question is the same as that in which aesthetic phenomena disport themselves, a space of freedom." 1
The ethical dimension in Sade’s work is defined as the distance from him or her self that a subject is able to maintain in moments of extreme pain or torture. This space is analogous to Kant’s understanding of one necessary for aesthetic contemplation, or for the free play of the senses, or “disinterested pleasure.” Extreme pain produces a form dissociation that Sade reads as the freedom necessary for a radical ethics. It feels especially important to contradict such a view at this historical juncture: I reject the idea that there is political freedom in traumatic dissociation from society, either for the subject or collectively.
Again, to be fair, Bishop does not completely ignore the problem of pain. She repositions it as the prerogative of the individual, the author, or the one who ruptures order by following his own desire, and I do not totally reject this idea. Antje Krog’s Country of My Skull is a shockingly beautiful and brutal account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, for example, and it is an inexorably necessary book. But an individual’s prerogative to inflict pain thickens considerably when an artwork’s material support is made up of people. Bishop writes:
"One could extend Lacan’s argument to suggest that the most urgent forms of artistic practice today stem from a necessity to rethink the connections between the individual and collective along these lines of painful pleasure – rather than conforming to a self-suppressing sense of social obligation. Instead of obeying a super-egoic injunction to make ameliorative art, the most striking, moving and memorable forms of participation are produced when artists act upon a gnawing social curiosity without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt. This fidelity to singularized desire – rather than to social consensus – enables this work to join a tradition of highly authored situations that fuse reality with carefully calculated artifice (some of which will be discussed in the chapters that follow)." 1
Acting without guilt, staying loyal to one’s own desires, maintaining the integrity of one’s own authorship and control over the threshold between “reality” and the “constructed”—these are all qualities that recognizably describe the artist as a heroic author. Yet surely a “gnawing social curiosity” can be explored while taking others and their desires into account, even if, while taking others into account, an artist decides to piss people off anyway (which is not the same as inflicting extreme pain or producing dissociation through sadism, not even consensual sadism).
Bishop’s argument in favor of “highly authored” situations involving many people raises a number of important political questions when read through her Lacanian ethical model (radical ethics as the total freedom granted to the other when pain forces them to dissociate): From what position is pain inflicted or suffered? Who experiences pleasure? How is consent negotiated, and what kinds of power-relations are implicit in this negotiation? And how can all these fundamental social questions about a situation in which the artist is only one among many actors be reduced to the effect of “singularized desire,” or to what the artist wants? I see a contradiction here, a breach between Bishop’s fantasy of an artist acting on his own impulse irrespective of others and their ideas of obligation, and the very premise of artwork that is constituted socially.
The breach indicates another—more formal—problem with the definition of ethics elaborated above as it relates to participatory art; it is an ethical model that remains concerned with freedom from emotion, freedom from the conditions of the body (with pain as the means to dissociation), and freedom from the emotions and the conditions of the other’s body. Putting aside for a moment the fact that there are many kinds of bodies for whom such freedom is structurally out of reach, it remains true that participatory art by definition takes place between real people in time. Bishop’s is not an ethical model capable of describing un-disassociated viewers and performers or the relations that might form between them. Bishop tackles this problem by arguing that participatory art is not motivated by the work’s intersubjective dimension. She writes:
"In these projects, intersubjective relations are not an end in themselves, but serve to explore and disentangle a more complex knot of social concerns about political engagement, affect, inequality, narcissism, class and behavioral protocols." 1
Intersubjective relations occur but they are not primary for Bishop; they serve to allow an artist to “explore and disentangle” a “knot of social concerns” as he follows his “singularized desire.” This view reduces participation by others to a sort of ground for the exploration by an author and I think it profoundly misrepresents the stakes of much, although not all, of the work in this genre.
For example: Bishop cites Paul Chan’s Waiting For Godot in New Orleans (2007) as a good example of participatory work because, while it draws on activist and pedagogical strategies, it suspends both in the space of free-play. She writes, “Chan sustains simultaneously two different registers of the political: as instrumentalised diplomacy, and as the suspension of this inclination towards a work of art.” 1
On the surface, this is a perfect example with which, in her words, to see “the grey artistic
work of participatory art—deciding how much or how little scripting to enforce—rather than in the ethical
black-and-white of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ collaboration.” 1
Chan scripts the play, Chan decides how much of it to enforce and how much freedom to give the other people involved, and it is Chan’s prerogative to eschew questions about the quality of participation he engenders. To grant the intersubjective relations of this work primacy would be tantamount, in Bishop’s view, to acknowledging “a tacit analogy between anti-capitalism and the Christian ‘good soul,’” an example of failing “to accommodate the aesthetic or to understand it as an autonomous realm of experience,” or of making “no space for perversity, paradox and negation, operations as crucial to aesthesis
as dissensus as it is to the political.” 1
Yet Chan himself describes his work in explicitly intersubjective terms.In fact he explains that Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was essentially about getting people to respond to each other. He writes:
"[T]o imagine that the play was the thing is to miss the thing. We didn’t simply want to stage a site-specific performance of Godot. We wanted to create, in the process of staging the play, an image of art as a form of reason. What I mean is that we wanted to use the idea of doing the play as the departure point for inaugurating a series of causes and effects that would bind the artists, the people in New Orleans, and the city together in a relationship that would make each responsible for the other." 1
This passage betrays the fact that, for Chan, “the thing” was something collective, plural, and that the actor was “we,” “the artists,” and not “I”. The object was not the play but the process that was shared among an un-specified group of people. It is possible, of course, to enact a form of collective singularized desire (the American military forces in Abu Graib come to mind as one graphic example), but even on that question Chan is explicit—the point was to bind people across their collective identities, to make them responsible to each other. This is fundamentally different than subordinating the “people in New Orleans and the city” to “the artist’s’” exploration and disentanglement of structural forces like “political engagement, affect, inequality, narcissism, class and behavioral protocols.” 1
Chan is explicitly refusing to reduce all those people to emblems of themselves haphazardly taped together by a master-puppeteer, people without agency or desire of their own. He locates the project in the social, not in some autonomous aesthetic experience. Further, to acknowledge this process of binding does not disavow its aesthetic dimension. Chan writes that the project “was an experiment in using art to organize a new image of life in the city two years after the storm [Hurricane Katrina].” 1
“Freedom is the recognition that our own desire and aggression are drives that bind us to others, not drives that makes us whole only unto ourselves. Freedom is the acknowledgement of doubt, of instability, rather than their denial in favor of a dangerous fantasy of invincible individualism.”
Like Esche, then, there is an object (a play or a building’s communication network) that provides the aesthetic support for the exploration of intersubjective relations, not as an end in themselves but as a process. This process is not about articulating what one person wants, according to Chan, but rather produces a dialectical tension. This tension moves people outside of themselves, perhaps, but it does so by moving them towards others, into relationship with others. It is this movement towards another that allows for a “new image of life in the city” to emerge.
The insufficiency of Bishop’s framework is due, as I have argued, in large part to the inappropriate structure of her model for ethics, but this misalignment belies a much deeper problem. Bishop assumes that the possibility of autonomy, even if it is only articulated at the level of experience, is a precondition for freedom. I would argue the opposite: freedom is not control over another’s experience and it does not require an abstract object through which to imagine a better world. Freedom is the recognition that our own desire and aggression are drives that bind us to others, not drives that makes us whole only unto ourselves. Freedom is the acknowledgement of doubt, of instability, rather than their denial in favor of a dangerous fantasy of invincible individualism.
I wish to thank Amy Zion and Orit Gat for their relentlessness. Both read countless drafts, insisted on important revisions, and argued with me over many years to publish this work rather than abandon it for easier material. This began as a master’s thesis at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and owes much of its sophistication to time spent reading with Thomas Keenan and arguing with Mary Walling Blackburn. I acknowledge a profound debt to Rosalyn Deutsche for her analysis of the latent masculinism in art historical discourse. In 2014, I co-curated an exhibition with Kerry Downey, “Failing to Levitate,” and our collective experience continues to challenge me intellectually in relation to this material. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Marte Danielsen Jølbo for her editorial subtlety and for her belief in this work.
Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in New York and Marseille. Recent projects include “The Exposed Suture” at Rond-Point Projects in Marseille, France and “City and City” at the Aronson Gallery at Parsons in Manhattan. Llorens is currently adjunct faculty in the Master’s program in curatorial studies at Parsons Paris. She is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University. Her academic research is focused on violence and representation in Algerian national cinema from the period immediately post independence.