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Watchers and wearers: an investigation of socio-political art as a cycle of participation

Simpson, Lorene (2013) Watchers and wearers: an investigation of socio-political art as a cycle of participation. Masters thesis (MA), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis will consider the socio-political dimension of participation in art, the relationship between participation and socio-political comment, and how contemporary criticism has sought to frame that relationship. ‘Socio-political’ in this context is giving a voice to diverse groups of people who might not otherwise be heard. It is understood within a process described by Jacques Rancière as ‘dissensus’ which works upon the established framework of inclusion and exclusion operating in society. It is the idea that, by disrupting the borders and roles determined within that framework, a precluded other can set in motion the capacity to make the unseen visible and the unsayable audible. Disruption works through Rancière’s articulation of an ‘emancipated spectator’ as one who interprets and translates what is placed before them in order to produce meaning. I will focus on the practice of three artists who have worked in external locations which may be seen as marginalised or contested: Hélio Oiticica, Francis Alys and Jeremy Deller. They have produced works in which participation exists in its broadest sense, as an act of sharing or taking part, and involve participation in open propositions, acts of directed performance or in a sharing of individual memory and experience. At the heart of these investigations is a ‘cycle of participation’ proposed by Oiticica. It points to different kinds of active spectator participation and is significant for art practices in which the art object and its mediation of autonomous aesthetic experience includes a socio-political form of interpretive spectator participation. These artists are concerned with making art politically but not with making political or activist art per se. They position aesthetic experience and politics as existing within the same discursive frame, mediating aesthetic experience to make plain issues of socio-political concern. Their practices operate through Rancière’s articulation of emancipation, proposing a space in which autonomous acts of aesthetic experience converge to set in motion a capacity to imagine the world, and our relations to it, differently, rather than through medium specificity reflecting on different interests on the part of different constituencies. It will be shown, through case studies, that the works by these artists were not created through a process of reciprocal creative labour, conversational exchange, negotiation and consensual dialogue as proposed in the relational art of Nicholas Bourriaud, the socially engaged practices supported by Claire Bishop or the collaborative processes and dialogical exchange promoted by Grant Kester. Furthermore, that art which reveals socio-political conditions that result in feelings of discomfort are as valid as those which seek to be ameliorative. Another concern is to try and understand the reception of such works on their return to the gallery. I will consider the specificity of knowledge to be gained from the participatory event itself and that from encountering the work through documentation, reflecting briefly on the problems of controlling agency in regard to art with a participatory socio-political dimension.

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