[iDC] FW: Proposed post x the dog

Judith Rodenbeck jrodenbe at slc.edu
Sat Nov 5 13:18:51 EST 2005

Dear iDC:

On Thursday I gave a paper at the Art History Speaker Series at Elon
University in North Carolina. It's a paper about participatory art in the
1960s, but some of the ideas may be of interest to people on the list. The
paper is very much a work-in-progress and in delivery I very often go off
page, so much detail in what was said doesn't appear in the text. But it
takes off from a consideration of Nicolas Bourriaud's "relational
aesthetics" and some of the conditions he places on that term.


The Open Work: Participatory Art Since Silence
Judith Rodenbeck

Art History at Elon Speaker Series
Elon University
November 3, 2005

In the introduction to his 2002 (English translation; originally in French
1998; essays dating as far back as 1992) book, Relational Aesthetics, the
curator Nicolas Bourriaud writes that currently, "the liveliest factor that
is played out on the chessboard of art has to do with interactive,
user-friendly and relational concepts." (Bourriaud, 8) The list of artists
to whom he refers reads like the most-wanted list for the international art
market/circuit of the past decade-Pierre Huyghe, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio
Cattelan, Rikrit Tiravanija. Thes artists, he writes, "are not connected
together by any style, theme or iconography. What they do share is much more
decisive, to wit, the fact of operating within one and the same practical
and theoretical horizon: the sphere of interhuman relations." (Bourriaud,

The resulting works Bourriaud thinks of as "hands-on utopias" (Bourriaud,
9)-"the artwork of the 1990s turns the beholder into a neighbor," he writes
(Bourriaud, 43)-and it is the object of his small book to not only bring
some coherence to the category they define but also to elucidate some of the
terms of that category. "The artwork is presented as a social interstice
within which these experiments and these new 'life possibilities' appear to
be possible. (Bourriaud, 43) Bourriaud's claim is that this new work "in no
way draw[s] sustenance from any reinterpretation of this or that past
aesthetic ovement." (Bourriaud, 44) Neither revival nor comeback, relational
aesthetics, for Bourriaud, is the correct vanguardist response to a world
saturated by mass communications. "But the very first question, as far as
these new approaches are concerned, obviously has to do with the material
form of these works. How are these apparently elusive works to be decoded,
be they process-related or behavioural by ceasing to take shelter behind the
sixties art history?" (Bourriaud, 7) 

This is a defensive maneuver. As such it is one that needs to be taken on.
In developing his theory of relational aesthetics Bourriaud was trying to do
several things: to assemble like-minded artists and works (curatorial
project), to give them a pedigree (museological task), and to prove that the
issues involved were at the same time new and radically contemporary
(critical task). Part of the newness had to do, in Bourriaud's account, with
asking what kind of art was possible after the doldrums of the 1980s, when
the hegemony of "spectacle" seemed assured (via the alleged failures of May
1968), after institutional critique seemed to have run its course, and after
any socially-engaged avant-garde had exhausted itself and the political
patience of its adherents-and even, perhaps, the conditions of its
possibility. Bourriaud's writing has been criticized for a degree of
theoretical weakness; it is not my object to repeat those criticisms.
Rather, what I want to address is his dismissal of those sixties art
practices to which Bourriaud ascribes to grand a sheltering capacity. 
I'll be relatively straightforward about my allegiances. Though the rubric
of "relational aesthetics" has provided an extremely useful conceptual frame
through which to understand the gambits of a number of important
contemporary projects it is a frame that needs a little interrogating. I
don't want to make the argument that "it was all done before," nor do I want
to bemoan "the good old days." But I do want to ask what Bourriaud's
defensive move might tell us about contemporary practice by putting those
terms Bourriaud has retrofitted-interactive, user-friendly, relational-back
into the (or an) historical perspective that Bourriaud has willfully

Bourriaud points to one important theoretical precedent. This activation of
the audience was strategically confirmed for visual artists by Marcel
Duchamp in recorded and much-distributed comments made at a 1957 conference
in Houston. In "The Creative Act," Duchamp eschewed an intentional model of
artistic production, suggesting instead that the "art coefficient" of an
artwork lay precisely in those aspects that were not accounted for by the
artist; if anything, the "art coefficient" lay in the quasi-contractual or
even collaborative relationship between artist and audience
But a prior watershed moment, at least in the U.S., had already radically
opened the creative field with respect to both material and audience
awareness. This was John Cage's 1952 composition, 4'33", his most
notoriously indeterminate score. Cage's piece is one of the prime examples
of an indeterminacy in composition; it is also an example of what critic
Umberto Eco would call an "open work." The question I'd like to ask: what
can indeterminacy and the open work tell us about current participatory

overview of paper
This talk will be addressed loosely to three overlapping sets of ideas: 1)
participation; 2) the open work and, more specifically, what Eco calls the
"work in motion;" and 3) the problematic presented by contemporary artistic
autonomy. I may not get to this last, but it subtends the others and, I
think you'll see, underpins both the notion of participation and that of the
open work. 

I want first to propose a loose typology of participation. It is possible to
think about participation in at least three ways:

thinking - "experiencing" (4'33" or Duchamp)
doing - "I gave them something to do" (Kaprow, Rauschenberg combines)
doing something while thinking, i.e. making decisions
The differences have to do with degrees of decision-making from
inhabiting/experiencing to following instructions to active collaboration.
Each proposes a different idea of competence.

weak definition
In his article "Participatory Art and Appreciative Practice," (Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2001) David Novitz provides a useful weak
definition. "It is well known," he writes, "that there are degrees of
appreciation." His interest, he says, is in an underappreciated set of
artworks, "those largely neglected art forms that cannot adequately be
appreciated, and cannot function properly, unless the viewer is physically
present in the artwork itself or a performance of it, and, while there,
participates in certain activities that arise out of and are required by
these works." (Novitz, 153) For Novitz, participation is another word for a
kind of immersive physiological engagement-hence the examples provided by
him are largely architectural (and the majority are pre-20th century). 
Thus a weak definition of participation implies that any engagement is
"participation." While this clearly relates to Duchamp's own position-it
presents us with a modified communications model that says the work is in
some sense completed in the experience of the viewer-its weakness lies in
its availability or even applicability to any artwork that grabs our
attention; and if "participation" in this definition is equivalent to
"engagement," which implies "interpretation," the set of encounters with
artworks to which it applies is very large. While the definition has the
advantage of undermining the (modernist) fiction of art's autonomy-we are
forced to acknowledge that it is never anything other than conditional-its
broad generality makes it relatively useless for describing the properties
of specific projects.

stronger definition
A second, stronger definition understands participation in a more active
sense as an extension of engagement. While this kind of participation does
involve some degree of conscious navigation it nevertheless lacks a sense of
responsibility beyond the immediate obligation to twiddle or observe. 
Into this category, for example, I'd put much new media art, in which the
viewer is presented with the possibility of navigating through a limited
range of options, each with a determinate outcome. That navigation doesn't
change the form of the artwork. Also in this category might be the genre of
the museum education project-not in itself a bad thing but very questionably
of interest for its participatory aspect, given that participation is its
primary goal. But I also want to keep in sight those paratactical
museum-educational projects such as the guided tours by artist like Andrea
Fraser or Janet Cardiff, and the now-classic institution-critical
interventions of artists like Hans Haacke. These kinds of projects are
historically self-conscious: post-readymade works which understand the (art)
institution itself as a readymade. These works involve participants,
"tourists" even, but the role of the artist in shaping both form and content
of the work is foregrounded.

strongest definition
Finally, the strongest definition necessitates a more precise and active
notion of participation-what Umberto Eco calls "an oriented insertion" (Eco,
19)-which produces the actual reconfiguration of the work. This kind of
participation involves an iterable work; no two performances will be the
same. Under this rubric participation involves a conscious decision-making,
action-taking on the part of the participant in such a way that the
structure of the work itself is shaped by that activity. The artist's
embrace of chance extends itself to the received form of the work itself. 
While I don't want to claim participatory art is only ever a contemporary
phenomenon, it is nevertheless clear that something changed in the post
World War II era that was historically significant. This change was
registered in the cultural arenas of music, the visual arts, the performing
arts, and in literature, and made itself felt through a new emphasis on
process, on experiment, on the activation of performers and participants and
on the strategic and conceptual cross-overs from one arena of activity to
another. It's not my object here to present some finite "explanation" for
that change. Rather, what I'd like to do is take that change as a predicate,
a given, and ask what it tells us about more contemporary projects.

open work
My title is a little misleading since it implies that in some measure the
open work and participatory art are equivalent. But I like to think of that
dividing colon as implying, on the left side, the broad category, and on the
right the qualification or specific iteration.

For the open work not the same as participatory art. This is not a reflexive
pairing. Rather, the open work implies participation, but of a very
particular kind. That is, the open work requires an active, cognitive
participation (including physical engagement) that goes beyond a weak
description of participation (Novitz) simply as "awareness" and towards
participation as an active decision-making. Further, the open work takes
that cognitive participation as a structural necessity-in a way that a weak
definition of participation cannot fully encompass. In the open work the
iterability is a structuring problematic. 

Cage & Silence
I'd like to begin by retelling a familiar story. It is the story of John
Cage's silent piece, 4'33", which was composed (or rather, given a score)
and first performed in 1952. 4'33" was premiered one rainy evening in 1952
in Woodstock, New York as part of a concert devoted to a chronological
recital of Cage's compositions; it was performed by the pianist David Tudor,
who had been with Cage at Black Mountain the previous year. The piece-three
strictly measured movements of silence-marked an endpoint to certain
compositional explorations, introducing indeterminacy into the compositional
repertoire. Though chance operations (reading a modified tarot) were used to
determine the duration of each movement, the performance of the piece-for it
was a piece to be performed-was left to the performer. As the sound of the
everyday crept in to fill the measures of Cage's score it became clear to
his audience that the three precisely timed measures of chance-determined
length, framed by the concert-hall, designated a "content" that would always
be indeterminate. 

4'33" punctuated Cage's career to date; the piece was a kind of semi-colon
dividing off more traditional compositional concerns from subsequent
preoccupations. Cage's composition removed expressivity from duration,
harmony, and touch, relying on the auditory capacities of his audience to
"play" the piece. Three movements of specific but unequal clocked duration,
each marked tacet ("silence"), make up the score for 4'33".  In 4'33" Cage,
by both rigidly specifying the duration of "silence" and tacitly accepting
the impossibility of "silence" except as a written instruction, at once
leached out musical expressivity and confirmed the textuality of music. 
Throughout his career Cage contended that 4'33" produced an active kind of
listening, and its terms encompass the renunciation of interpretive closure
and an opening out to what Roland Barthes called the "raw and vertical"
"shimmering" of polysemy. For some, in the context of the early 1950s-an era
of repressive politics in which an anti-Communist, geo-politically
isolationist, triumphalist, and eminently family-oriented post-war state
determined, through the exercise of legal injunctions and punishments as
well as social prohibitions, the norms of private life and the parameters of
everyday life-Cage's silent 4'33" seemed an extraordinary surrender of
voice; that is, it encodes the passivity of the composer confronted with the
musical bar, of the performer confronted with the score commanding silence,
and of the audience confronted with the lack of performance. 

For others, however, the piece provided a much-needed wake-up call; indeed
that call was an answer to the uncomfortable quietism of the 1950s. Allan
Kaprow, then 25 and a philosophy student at NYU, was in the audience of the
second performance of 4'33", at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. For
Kaprow Cage's silent piece expanded the notions of both composition and
performance to include not simply the intentional production of sound, the
production of attention to sound, and, beyond that, as with Rauschenberg's
white paintings, of attention to contingent phenomena. "I was very struck by
4'33"," he recalled. "I intuited that it was his most philosophically and
radically instrumental piece. 'Instrumental' in the sense that it made
available to a number of us not just the sounds in the world but all
phenomena. Then the question is, now that everything's available, what do
you do?" 

The complex articulated by 4'33" is heterogenous. Among the various
interpretive lenses through which this piece has been examined are:
alongside McCarthyite repression, zen, Heisenbergian uncertainty, the
history of Muzak. Most importantly, for our purposes, is this: what 4'33"
proposed-recall Kaprow's use of the word "instrumental"-was, in the words of
Umberto Eco, "a new relationship between the contemplation and the
utilization of a work of art." (Eco, 23) Remember our typology: thinking -
"experiencing" (4'33" or Duchamp); doing - "I gave them something to do"
(Kaprow, Rauschenberg combines); doing something while thinking, i.e. making

In his crucial 1962 essay "The Open Work," Umberto Eco describes other new
works in music in which the performer is a decision maker. But this essay
was not simply about new music-about Berio, Stockhausen, Schaeffer. It was a
productive theorizing that had emerged from Eco's consideration of music and
literature and the visual arts. That is, Eco was describing a broader
development in Western cultural production of the 1950s and early 1960s: the
"open work" can exist across multiple disciplines. 

What are open works? "In primitive terms we can say that they are quite
literally 'unfinished,'" writes Eco; "the author seems to hand them on to
the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit. He
seems to be unconcerned about the manner of their eventual deployment."
(Eco, 4)

Open works "reject the definitive, concluded message and multiply the formal
possibilities of the distribution of their elements. They appeal to the
initiative of the individual performer, and hence they offer themselves not
as finite works which prescribe specific repetition along given structural
coordinates but as 'open' works, which are brought to their conclusion by
the performer at the same time as he experiences them on an aesthetic
plane." (Eco, 3) And he notes that "the practical intervention of a
'performer'.is different from that of an interpreter in the sense of
consumer" though both can be seen as "different manifestations of the same
interpretative attitude." (Eco, 251) Thus the open work is not predicated on
completion by an addressee's consumption/enjoyment of the same form the
artist originally presented. Under our weak definition of participation, as
Eco correctly notes, "every reception of a work of art is both an
interpretation and a performance of it." (Eco, 4) But the open work is
marked by "the autonomy left to the individual performer in the way he
chooses to play the work," requiring that the performer not only interpret
instructions but also "impose judgment on the form of the piece." (Eco, 1) 
Eco observes that "perhaps we are in a position to state that for these
works of art an incomplete knowledge of the system is in fact an essential
feature in its formulation." (Eco, 15) Open works, then, describe not a
finite object but a "field of relations" and Eco describes the most radical
subset of these projects as examples of "work in movement": mobile,
iterable, collaborative.

open structure, participatory requirements applied to visual art expands art
Cage's silent piece, in part because it was so dramatically visual,
presented to visual artists a new understanding of the field of relations
available. From 1957 to 1958 Cage intermittently taught a composition class
at the New School for Social Research in New York. Among the students were
many of the characters who would go on to produced event work in the 1960s,
including Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, James Tenney,
Toshi Ichiyanagi (then Yoko Ono's husband), and so on. Two of the most
extraordinarily productive outgrowths of the Cage course at the New School
were the time-based arts that emerged under the aegis first of happenings
and then of Fluxus.

Both were rule-bound intense investigations of time (as well as of the
definition of art, materials, production). Happenings and Fluxus projects
tended towards the radically material, the immersive, the hybrid, and the

Happenings, though often chance-generated, were scripted (like Fluxus pieces
but much more complex), but generally were collage-based rather than verbal.
They grew out of an expanded collage practice in which viewers were
increasingly "given something to do," and through the early 1960s were, in
the work of certain artists, increasingly participatory in the strong sense.
In the development of happenings Kaprow emphasized "a spirit that is at once
passive in its acceptance of what may be and affirmative in its disregard of
security." The deployment of chance strategies, Kaprow argued, was "a moral
act, a human stand of great urgency, whose professional status as art is
less a criterion than their certainty as an ultimate existential
commitment." His first happening, and the one which gave us the name for the
form, was 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959). This piece was rigid,
behaviorist, but its score was nevertheless chance derived. (We have only
two viewer accounts, one by the science fiction writer Samuel Delany, and
one partially dubious account currently in circulation on the internet.)
Happenings in general were single-authored works but made use of multiple
participants. As the form developed artists increasingly moved away from a
model in which there was some distinction between audience and performers
and, for those who kept working in the arena of live arts, became more and
more involved with works involving either a closed set of participants and
no observers or with works open to the public at large.

Joint production characterizes Fluxus in its identification as a group
project with, as George Maciunas put it, "socially constructive" objectives,
and the ensemble work, festivals, communal meals, games, and group
publications reinforced this sense, as did the practices (afforded by the
device of the open score) of realizing each other's concepts and performing
each other's pieces. 

The kinds of scores produced were not so much instructional as directive,
performative, and indeterminate, for, as Dick Higgins explained, "each work
has a unique gestalt which no single performance or notation can totally
realise." Fluxus was also anti-professional: the importance of
dilletantism-combined, of course, with high seriousness of execution-was one
lesson in democracy learned from Cage's class.

Fluxus emphasized monomorphic, verbal/pun structures, musically based
ensemble "events." In part because so many of the artists involved came from
a background in music, Fluxus performances seemed to be much more naturally
collaborative than their close cousins, the happenings (which had emerged
from the more privatized practice of painting). The ruling model was low
theater, cheap entertainment, carney fare-popular forms with an emphasis on
humor and physical one-liners, immediate and concrete in their apprehension.

These two clusters of activities, happenings and Fluxus, are distinct in the
following aspects:
painting v. music
individual v. collective
singular v. iterable
complex v. monomorphic
local v. distributable
However they shared: internationalism, low humor, ordinary materials,

relational aesthetics
Let's go back now to relational aesthetics. Remember, for Bourriaud many of
the works he champions are "interactive, user-friendly, relational" and they
encompass "service" projects, networks, multiply authored work, and ongoing
project-type exploration. But it is important to note that what Bourriaud
proposes is a structure of top-down control, either by artist(s) or by
curator, in the form of "I provide the space for you," i.e. the language of
choice i.e. coercive "need" and model of consumption. [ETC. SPECULATIVE


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