San Francisco

Eduardo Clark, The World of Lygia Clark, 1973, still from a color video, 27 minutes.

Eduardo Clark, The World of Lygia Clark, 1973, still from a color video, 27 minutes.

“The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now”

Eduardo Clark, The World of Lygia Clark, 1973, still from a color video, 27 minutes.

IN NOVEMBER 1980 artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz inaugurated their project Hole-in-Space, a live two-way telecommunication event or, as they termed it, a “public communication sculpture.” Installed at Lincoln Center in New York and at a department store in Century City in Los Angeles, Hole-in-Space, which took place over three evenings, enabled passersby on opposite coasts to see, hear, and speak to one another in real time via life-size television images. On their website, Galloway and Rabinowitz describe the work in terms of immediacy and spontaneous interaction; it was a literal “hole” through which geographic space was compressed, “sever[ing] the distance between both cities.” The video documentation of this event, on view recently in the exhibition “The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was presented on two oversize facing screens, on which visitors watched crowds gather to gawk at one another and exchange greetings, jokes, insults, and come-ons. Conversation is generally hesitant, stuttering, reduced to the most basic demands for recognition by the apparitions on the facing screen. Geographic distance may well be eliminated, but psychic and social distance remain stubbornly intact. In both New York and Los Angeles, the television images appeared behind large windows, and even in the video documentation, we can feel those sheets of glass separating the two groups, each of which looks a bit like a pack of caged animals. Interaction is simultaneously summoned and forbidden.

This quality makes Hole-in-Space a rather emblematic component of “The Art of Participation,” an exhibition through which curator Rudolf Frieling intended to trace the development of interactivity, of conversation, and of two-way communication in the art of the last half-century or so. Emblematic, because it stands at almost the halfway point between the postwar neo-avant-garde’s first experiments with what Frieling (after Umberto Eco) calls “the open work of art” and the most recent attempts to involve networked communities via various new media platforms. Galloway and Rabinowitz’s telecommunication event occupies a conceptual crux, a turning point between vanguard practices that often sought to demystify the normative categories of artmaking—the object, the artist, the viewer—as part of a larger critical program aimed at producing new, nonhierarchical social relations, and practices that have absorbed technological advances only to affirm our contemporary economy of spectacle and commodification. Frieling, formerly of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany, and curator of media arts at SF MoMA since 2006, has described the inception of this show as a response to the arrival of Web 2.0 and in particular to the kinds of Web-based communities generated through social-networking sites such as Facebook. Hole-in-Space, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, looks then like a forerunner of these high-tech architectures of participation.

But for all the talk of interconnectivity and interactivity, for all the hailing of a new era of communication and collaboration enabled by this technological platform, Hole-in-Space and Web 2.0 share a deeper ambivalence: Ostensibly interfaces allowing for a greater ease of exchange between individuals and groups, both also redound back on the “participant” as forms of ego gratification. Cultural critic Christine Rosen has written about what she calls “egocasting” technologies, from the cell phone to the DVR, which, by promising increasing control over our experiences and encouraging an increasingly individualized pursuit of personal taste, produce a narcissistic expectation that we might have whatever we want on demand. But this desire for instant gratification is not only apparent in our gadgets; it also lies at the heart of the marketing of the Web-as-participation-platform and, for that matter, at the heart of much new media art that partakes of such rhetoric. Examples abound in “The Art of Participation,” from the collective c a l c and Johannes Gees’s relatively early communimage, 1999, in which people may add to a single ever-growing composite image by uploading their own pictures to a website, to Joachim Blank, Karl Heinz Jeron, and Gerrit Gohlke’s 1st Public White Cube, 2001/2008, a rather cynical vision of participation as a pay-to-play scheme, with the highest bidder at a weekly online auction winning the right to alter a work by one of two guest artists installed in SF MoMA’s gallery space. While one encourages taking part free of charge and the other requires money, both works promise the participant expanded choice and control over aesthetic experience. But what had once promised to be the site of a confrontation with the unexpected—new modes of art practice that propose different models of relationality between subject and world—is transformed into the site of a reassuring encounter with the self.

Rosen writes of the mirror as the very model of an egocasting technology, providing its user with a readily available image of him- or herself and encouraging self-consciousness and introspection. Of course the mirror has also served as a model for contemporary art practice, with Rosalind Krauss characterizing the television monitor as a species of mirror or “sustained tautology” in her famous 1976 article “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” Krauss aligned video’s feedback loops with the reflection seen in the mirror; “the agency of reflection” itself, she wrote, is “a mode of appropriation, of illusionistically erasing the difference between subject and object.” And such a bracketing-out of the object, of the other, is precisely the mechanism of narcissism. Krauss was, in the mid-1970s, addressing artists such as Vito Acconci (whose 1970 Proximity Piece, in which the artist unnerved visitors to the Jewish Museum’s “Software” exhibition by furtively impinging upon their personal space, was documented in “The Art of Participation”). But this mirror-logic applies even more clearly to spectacular projects like that of Galloway and Rabinowitz, where the video screens on opposite walls of the gallery come to resemble the configuration, invoked by Krauss, of two “facing mirrors” that “squeeze out the real space between them.” Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s more recent interactive installations indulge in a similar narcissistic gambit: At SF MoMA, for example, his Microphones, 2008, consists of a theatrically lit circle of vintage microphones, into which one is invited to speak; your voice is recorded and that of the previous participant is immediately played back through a tiny loudspeaker installed in the mic, producing a kind of aural collage. Beyond the meagerness of the level of participation, what is striking here is the solicitation of pleasure in hearing one’s own voice amplified through the microphone, which functions as a mirror of sound, followed by the acoustic illusion of a response from the disembodied voice of one’s predecessor, in a form of distorted echo. What might have been realized as an instrument of ego loss, of the subsumption of the self into some larger, anonymous aural mass, instead takes the shape of a tool for an almost infantile gratification in the fiction of a call-and-response played with oneself.

So how can this mirror-logic, this aesthetic of participatory narcissism, be circumvented? Only a few yards away from the Lozano-Hemmer work was Matthias Gommel’s Delayed, 2002, a sound installation that used feedback loops to critical rather than affirmative ends. Two headsets with attached microphones dangled from the ceiling, positioned only a couple of yards apart in a much-trafficked museum corridor; wearing them, two people could communicate, but only at a three-second delay. Although one’s interlocutor was clearly visible, almost close enough to touch, attempts at dialogue continually foundered as one confronted this time lag. A resolutely simple work, Delayed updated a classic ’70s strategy for the age of the cell phone, exploiting its medium in order to critique it from within. Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1977, video documentation of which was also on view at SF MoMA, is an exemplar of that earlier moment, with the artist standing before an audience, a mirrored wall behind him, carefully describing his own and the crowd’s movements as seen directly and as reflected in the mirror—thereby effectively evading the self-absorption endemic to video. (For here, the audience becomes a stand-in for the camera and the mirror for the monitor.) We see another strategy of counternarcissism, one that functions more directly by assaulting the apparatus in order to escape its psychological hold, in Nam June Paik’s early manipulation of a television set so that it responds to the vocal cues of someone speaking into an integrated microphone (Participation TV, 1963/1998), or in Valie Export’s Tap and Touch Cinema, 1968, which desublimated the eroticism of mainstream cinema in frequently confrontational performances inviting audience members to use hands, rather than eyes, to explore the female body—no longer a spectacle on the screen but a physical presence before them.

Export’s work could also be described as a kind of gift, an offering to the passersby, and this logic perhaps constitutes the most powerful rejoinder to the narcissism coursing through so much “participatory” art. There are many “gifts” to be found at SF MoMA, from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s sublime stack of posters (Untitled, 1992/1993) to Tom Marioni’s ridiculous installation-as-artists’-bar. Onetime Ant Farm members Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier, working with Bruce Tomb, produced Ant Farm Media Van v.08 (Time Capsule), 2008, whose central element was the HUQQUH (pronounced “hookah”), a media console into which you could plug any one of your egocasting technologies—from cell phone and camera to iPod—and have a file randomly uploaded to its digital time capsule (to be opened in 2030), information originally intended for personal use become part of a collective record of the moment, in a gift to the near future. (Indeed, Jochen Gerz’s photographic project, which invites visitors to have their pictures taken and displayed in the gallery, is called The Gift, 2000/2008.) But the most resonant gifts are those that entail reciprocal responsibilities on the part of the recipient—gifts in which an unmistakably ethical dimension enters. In allowing audience members to take up scissors and remove pieces of her clothing, Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (as filmed in a 1965 performance at Carnegie Hall, and in a 2003 reprise in Paris) both enacted a form of sacrifice and obligated participants to confront their own actions and motivations. Lygia Clark’s various “dialogues (Hand Dialogue, 1966/2008, and Dialogue: Goggles, 1968/2008), her Sensorial Masks, 1967, and her Elastic Net, 1973/2008, all call for an involvement that explicitly requires negotiation, discussion, and often intimate contact with others taking part in her object-based games. It is no coincidence that these ambivalent gifts have been given by artists whose gender surely heightened their perception of the complex networks of power and entailment implied in any invitation to participate. Far from the mirror and its narcissistic investments, in their works the other is ever present as both challenger and supplicant. Participation may well be exhausted as a term in the lexicon of contemporary art because, as this show precisely indicates, it has been asked to accommodate too many differing agendas, from the old avant-garde ideal of breaking down the barriers between artwork and audience to the favored marketing strategies of consumer culture. The notion of mutual responsibility implied in the gift, however, the requirement that we discharge some obligation to the other, demands a species of agency or action beyond the circumscribed boundaries within which much of this “participatory” art asks us to involve ourselves. The history of the economy of the gift in contemporary art—with its complex play of power relations, dependency, and prestige—has, however, yet to be written.

“The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now” travels to the Palazzo delle Arti Napoli, Naples, May 15–Oct. 26; Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany, May–Aug. 2010.

Tom McDonough is a visiting professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.