Rudolf Frieling — Participation

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Rudolf Frieling

Rudolf Frieling, formerly curator and researcher at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, is curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

We all actively participate in smaller or larger communities as individuals, professionals, or members of the public. But when we talk about participation in art, an implicit assumption is challenged: the artist produces art and the public contemplates it. When the public is invited to contribute to or coproduce an artwork, this artistic proposal corresponds to a need to question authorial control in a fundamental way. This is a promise as much as it is a problem. While the public hopes for transformative encounters in art, the will to embrace whatever happens in an open and public process may translate into a serendipitous experience or into a failure to produce anything significant. Tearing down the walls of an aesthetically controlled environment, these proposals are still based on formal, aesthetic, and conceptual decisions. By embracing chance, by inviting others to participate in the production of the artwork, by claiming the radical dismantling of traditional systems for evaluating art, artists face a paradox: How to provide conditions for a moment of rupture but also serendipity as an opening of the senses toward an engagement that could reveal the participants’ behavior to themselves as well as to the public and possibly produce an unexpected new set of behaviors? Whatever happens, it happens only when the public is activated. While one might simply contemplate others participating, the artistic experience is intrinsically linked to the very act of participation. At the same time participation will be eternally countered by nonparticipation, indifference, or even resistance.

To speak about the promise of participation in art today means to be aware and critical of its spheres, specific conditions, limitations, and hidden agendas. Some participatory works refuse market-driven commodification by being productive generators of processes that all share a dialogical condition. A topology of the early history of participatory art from the 1960s includes group actions as therapy (Lygia Clark and her “relational objects”), poetic instructions in the tradition of Fluxus (George Brecht and Yoko Ono), communication and media events (Marta Minujin), social sculpture (Joseph Beuys), or simply the reconfiguring of modular elements as a sculptural proposition (Charlotte Posenenske). In each case a context is chosen and formal parameters are set in order to activate a latent and possibly transformative potential.

The history of participation in art encompasses a variety of conceptual, performative, and political approaches, including happenings, shared experiences, and performances as well as activists’ interventions, social practice, and technological communication events. None of these approaches were initially embraced by the art world; in fact even critics, curators, and artists have often proven derisive of participation. Consider, for example, Bruce Nauman’s dictum “I mistrust audience participation.”1 Or, more recently, the response to the surge of participatory museological practices embodied in The Museum of Non Participation, a fictional museum by the London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler that questions conditions of political involvement. These and other nonparticipatory projects turn away from political realities as a form of resistance and noncompliance or as a broader dismissal of participatory engagement as part of an uncritical “experience economy” and a neoliberal culture of spectacle.

Participation in art in its most minimal form constitutes a dialogue between the artist and the public; in its most complex form it involves crowd-sourced production processes that are initiated only by artists. Yet participation and dialogue are not intrinsic values. Who is talking to whom about what and in what way? What is being coproduced? When an artwork is subject to public intervention, it does not necessarily become more meaningful or aesthetically charged. To engage with a work requires being intrigued or challenged by its implicit and explicit rules of behavior. When these are violated, the responsibility of the participants is dramatically exposed. A participatory work thus needs an environment that stimulates a balance of trust and responsibility. The audience’s exploitation of proposed situations and the total absence of participation are possibilities inherent in the potentiality of participatory art. Yet the extent to which a work generates an engaged understanding, as opposed to the provocation of an end, may be considered a measure of its participatory quality. What is then experienced as the actual work is the extent to which activation, communality, or antagonistic forces become manifest.

Artists such as Hans Haacke and Stephen Willats have often addressed issues of control, deliberately limiting participation to a predefined set of choices through, for example, voting or multiple choice. Other artists, such as Andrea Fraser, choose to address the supposedly passive audience directly, activating that “medium” in a very physical sense, following the educational model of Bertolt Brecht or Joseph Beuys. This practice of institutional critique to dissect the power regimes and ideological structures that “frame” the art, however, doesn’t reflect on the public’s actual use of the museum. Despite the structural conditions of the institutional setting, the audience is never passive but rather is constantly adopting tactical ways of using the museum. Following Michel de Certeau, these subjective practices that interfere with any prescribed notion of consuming art can be described as “weak.” In the museum context, weak tactics include drifting through an exhibition, distracted attention and simulated contemplation, secretly or openly taking pictures, chatting on the phone, engaging in social interactions rather than simply looking at art: a “fleeting and massive reality of a social activity at play with the order that contains it.”2 It is only through these personalized actions that the museum becomes what de Certeau would call “habitable”—a “space borrowed for a moment by a transient.” In other words, the public always participates in the experience of art in time and space through its unique and particular ways of dealing with these conditions.

Other artists (e.g., Erwin Wurm) have developed accessible yet also absurd and playful practices involving participatory actions to posit a profound ambiguity, provoking ”weak” responses to the institution and the production process. By refusing to control such engagement or channel specific readings through didactic exhibition paths, a museum offers a space for undefined interactions that radically change our perception of the institution so that it is transformed from a deadening container to a “living museum,” as envisioned by Alexander Dorner in the 1920s. From this perspective the participatory museum becomes a producer of and an arena for social and aesthetic experiences that generate a discursive public space.


  1. Neal Benezra, Kathy Halbreich, and Paul Schimmel, Bruce Nauman: Exhibition Catalogue and Catalogue Raisonné (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1994), 77.  

  2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xxiv. 


For Further Reference

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965.

Lygia Clark, Dialogo/Oculos [Dialogue/Goggles], 1968.

Tom Marioni, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, 1970–2008.

Suzanne Lacy and Linda Pruess, International Dinner Party, 1979.

Robert Adrian X, The World in 24 Hours, 1982.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculptures, 1997–.

Jochen Gerz, The Gift/San Francisco, 2000/2008.

Harrell Fletcher/Miranda July, Learning to Love You More, 2002–9.

Sylvie Blocher, Je et Nous [I and Us], 2003.

Rivane Neuenschwander, I Wish Your Wish, 2003.

See Also

Media — Rudolf Frieling

Experience Economy — Elisabeth Sussman

Prop — Allison Smith

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Suzanne Lacy and Linda Pruess, International Dinner Party, 1979. A simultaneous worldwide dinner linking networks of feminist and development organizations, which then mailed in stories and images from their events. Photo: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964. Performed by the artist August 11, 1964, during “Yoko Ono Farewell Concert: Strip-Tease Show,” Sogetsu Art Center, Sogetsu Kaikan Hall, Tokyo. Photo: Minoru Hirata. Courtesy of Lenono Photo Archive. © Yoko Ono.

Rivane Neuenschwander, I Wish Your Wish, 2003–. Installation view, New Museum, 2010. Photo: Benoit Pailley. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © Rivane Neuenschwander.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.