All art forms require participation to some extent—as interpretation needs engagement. Participation was present in contemporary art already in the practice of the historic avant-garde, yet, it has gained a special importance around the late 1960s, in accordance with the general critique of hierarchical relations. As opposed to the dominant ideological order that alienates the subordinated, activating and involving the audience as co-producers of the art work have been considered as ways to emancipate and empower the viewer. At the same time, it also renounced the author’s control position (~authorship), thus participation has reinforced new social bonds and interhuman relations (~collaboration).  

Participation gained a new momentum in the 1990s, when discourse-based, collective, and durational practices (~discursivity) proliferated with the growing establishment of international residency and exchange programs. Furthermore, the ever-growing number of biennials and large scale international shows—which intensified the engagement with issues of globalism-localism—have increased the mobility of artists and curators, which profoundly changed the operational system of artistic production. In the former Soviet bloc, however, participatory art projects appeared sporadically, mainly in the second half of 1990s, and in most cases, they were initiated by artists in-residence from Western European countries. The fact that participatory art has not become ever since a strong part of contemporary cultural production in the this region could be traced back, on the one hand, to the shallowness of the pool of samples: the nonexistence of bottom-up, community-based practices during the communist decades, as well as the artificially maintained homogeneity of society, where precisely those marginalized groups or individuals were invisible with whom participatory art practices have started to engage with. On the other hand, mainly due to the lack of competency and resources, the institutional system after the political change of 1989 was able provide only limited possibilities and a narrow space for artists to initiate participatory art projects.

In her writing, contextualizing the social dimension of participation in art, Claire Bishop outlines three main motivating sources of participation: the empowerment of the subject to relate to her or his social and political environment, so that s/he could actively shape it; to question authorship (~authorship)in order to introduce a more egalitarian model through collectivism (~collaboration); and to form communities in times of endangered social relations, thus fostering social responsibilities. [1] Architect and theorist Markus Miessen, inspired largely by political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s ideas on antagonism, argues for a conflictual reading of participation. He proposes a post-consensual practice that breaks with the romanticism of negotiation and allows for a mode of participation “from outside existing networks and clearly defined milieus,” thus encouraging the “disinterested outsider” to enter the field of conflict as a form of creative engagement. [2]

There have been considerate attempts to distinguish participation from related modes of operation, such as collaboration (~collaboration), cooperation, collective action and relationality; [3] yet, as most of the projects shift between these overlapping activities, the related critical and theoretical writings are shifting accordingly. Various forms of participatory art models have been developed; still, it is worthwhile to differentiate at least two main directions according to the impact of the public’s involvement in redefining authorship and challenging authority (~authorship). In one of these two modes, the frame and even the outcome of the collaboration are preset; the public’s involvement provides a kind of a raw material in the procedure of production, orchestrated by the artist. The other type of art and cultural projects consider participation the end product in itself, the very essence of the creative procedure where the artist has no pre-conceived ideas of the outcome, which allows more space for the unexpected, and considers the participants co-producers of the work / event.

Although participation characterizes most of the socially-engaged and activist art projects open to involve various communities and individuals in the creative procedure, it is increasingly criticized for using participation as a tool of political legitimization, applying a forced model of democracy and inclusion, creating “ideologically loaded spaces” in which people can publicly perform their role as active citizens, while their contribution follows a hieratical agenda in which people’s participation is limited to tokenism. [4] Similarly, relational art practices (~performative curating), in the Bourriaudian sense, presuppose participation; nevertheless, it is often noted that the subjective encounters the works intend to establish concern only a limited circle of like-minded people, thus it takes participation a formal requirement irrelevant to establish social relationships. [5]

Anglo-Saxon critical approaches towards participatory practices tend to revolve around two poles (as represented most distinctly in the writings of Grant Kester and Claire Bishop): favoring either the aesthetic experience or the social dimension of a project. Although disputes around these approaches keep the critical reception of participatory art vivid, they may run the risk of limiting the scope of the interpretation of similar practices; they may play out one project against another or may leave relevant initiatives in oblivion.


Nikolett Erőss


References and Further Readings

Billing, Johanna – Maria Lind – Lars Nilsson
2007 Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices. London. Black Dog Publishing

Bishop, Claire
2004 Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. OCTOBER 110/Fall 2004, 51–79
2012 Artifical Hells. London, Verso

Bishop, Claire Ed
2006 Participation. London, Whitechapel - Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press

Gillick, Liam
2006 Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ’Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. OCTOBER 115/ 2006, 95–107

Kester, Grant
2004 Conversation Pieces. Berkley, University of California Press
2012 The One and the Many. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press

Miessen, Marcus
2007 The Violence of Participation. Spatial Practices Beyond Models of Consensus. Springerin1/2007,  Eurozine 2007. aug. 1. Web. 2012. szept. 1. 
2007 The Violence of Participation. Berlin, New York, Sternberg Press
2010 The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality). Berlin, New York, Sternberg Press

Milevska, Suzan
2006 Participatory Art. A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects. Springerin12.2/2006, Springerin. Web. 2013. márc. 8.

O'Neill, Paul
2010 Three Stages in the Art of Public Participation. The Relational, Social and Durational.dérive 39/2010, Eurozine, 2010. aug. 12. Web. 2013. márc. 8.

Thompson, Nato ed.
2012 Living as Form. Socially Engaged Art 1991-2011. New York, Cambrdige, Mass., Creative Time, MIT Press.

Wilser, Mark
2012 Out of Many, One Art Monthly 358/2012, 1-4.


[1] Claire Bishop ed. 2006 Participation. London, Whitechapel – Cambridge, The MIT Press.

[2] Markus Miessen 2007 “The Violence of Participation. Spatial Practices Beyond Models of Consensus”. Springerin 1/2007  Eurozine  Aug. 1. 2007. Web. Sept. 1. 2012..  

[3] Johanna Billing, Maria Lind and Lars Nilsson. 2007 eds.Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices. London, Black Dog Publishing,

[4] Mark Wilsher 2012 “Out of Many, One” Art Monthly 358/2012, 1-4.

[5] Claire Bishop 2004 “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” OCTOBER 110 (Fall 2004): 51–79.