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Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship by Claire Bishop

by Leah Lovett
22 Sep 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

Review: Claire Bishop (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London and New York: Verso. 382pp. ISBN: 978 1 84467 690 3.

When Sartre concluded that “hell is other people”, he meant to convey that the social interactions which define us as individuals are also the cause of our suffering. More often than not, it is a desire to address this suffering, perhaps even do some social good, that has steered artists towards participatory models of art production. This may explain a recent tendency by the left to claim participatory art as its own, and to align participation in art with democratic participation. By leading her reader into the ‘artificial hells’ such work has produced, Claire Bishop sets out to reveal the uncritical and ahistorical assumptions involved in this leftist rhetoric with the aim of identifying the actual potential of participation to the left. As she points out, artists throughout the twentieth century, in varied ideological contexts, explored opportunities for acting beyond the limits of the gallery by casting audiences into and as their work. The resulting performances, walks and interventions by groups including the Italian Futurists, Russian Constructivists and the Situationist International raised crucial aesthetic questions of visibility, individual versus collective authorship, and the blurring of art and life. All of these discursive binaries are reactivated by more recent projects, such as Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, but Bishop argues that the debates surrounding current social art practices have become speciously entangled in the ethics of using people as a material. Artificial Hells is her bold attempt to redress this critical oversight, and advance a set of criteria with which to judge the artistic as well as the social value of participatory art.

The book is divided into three parts. The first rehearses an article published in Artforum in 2006 which confirmed Bishop’s authority as an outspoken critic of the ‘social turn’ in art of the 1990s (or as she suggests in this context, the “social return”). As such, Bishop begins by reasserting her theoretical allegiance to Rancière, whose concept of an “aesthetic regime” upsets traditional narratives of art history through a revision of the aesthetic that takes in the social.[1]Crucially, he attempts to grapple with the politics of art, and modern art in particular, by identifying how it altered what was seeable, sayable and possible, and therefore changed the “distribution of the sensible”. Bishop draws on Rancière’s analysis of the overdetermined critiques of spectatorship through Brecht and Artaud to argue that there has been a disavowal of the aesthetic. Whilst this disregard for art may have resulted in artistic strategies of participation, it also presents a major weakness for Bishop, in the form of artists who use their exceptional status to intervene in the social but who fail to reconcile their work as art. A question which immediately arises, therefore, concerns whether Rancière’s concept of the aesthetic is in fact consistent with Bishop’s critical intentions, particularly given his attempt to move beyond conventional ideas about the art object – an issue to which I return below. This opening chapter sets the scene for an unapologetically partial history of participation which constitutes the second and main part of the book.Taking her cue from Rancière, examples from theatre as well as visual art are represented, resulting in some surprising and productive juxtapositions, such as that of the Dadaist Excursions et Visites of 1921 (from which this book takes its title) with Sergei Eisenstein’s staging of Sergei Tretyakov’s play, Gas Masks, in a working gas factory (1924).These are organised more or less persuasively around key dates that plot out a narrative of the triumph (1917), last stand (1968) and fall (1989) of Communism. Bishop’s decision to disregard most artists from the United States (notably, Allan Kaprow makes only a brief appearance in a section devoted to Lebel) is partly explained by this framework. However, limiting the scope of her survey to particular examples from Europe, Russia and South America also serves to indicate the avant-garde credentials of participation, albeit as one creative strategy among many. With their artistic lineage thus established, Bishop finally turns her attention in the third part of the book to the projects, delegated performances and pedagogies of contemporary practitioners. There are few surprises here – many of the artists featured were also included in the exhibition Double Agent (which she guest curated at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2008), with work by Pawel Althamer, Phil Collins, Tania Bruguera and Thomas Hirschorn.

Artificial Hells’ impressive historical reach sets it apart from the sudden flurry of academic interest around questions of the social in art – with books by Shannon Jackson, Grant Kester, Maria Lind and Nato Thompson all either due for publication or published in the past couple of years – and represents its signal contribution to the field. By looking back across art history through the lens of theatre, Bishop is able to take in a diverse set of practices, some more familiar than others, but which considered together effectively highlight the eruption of participatory art in “moments of political transition and upheaval”. Central to her argument, however, are the aesthetic and ideological differences between them. Therefore, whilst the dérives of the Situationist International figure as an attempt to sabotage spectacular forms of culture, the Artists Placement Group are shown to have actively embraced corporate structures in the UK. Meanwhile, practitioners such as Oscar Masotta and Augusto Boal are discussed in terms of their resistance to military dictatorship in 1970s Argentina, but the inclusion of Eastern-European artists such as Milan Knížák – for whom participation was a means of disruptively engaging individual creativity under socialism – complicates any straightforward connection between participation and political collectivism. Nor is participation necessarily to be regarded as radical or subversive. On the contrary, social media and its corollary, ‘Twitter Art’ (think Anthony Gormely’s One and Other), show us that “[f]ar from being oppositional to spectacle, participation has now entirely merged with it.”[2]For Bishop, what makes all of her examples more or less successful as art is “the artist’s talent for conceiving a complex work and its location within a specific time, place and situation.”[3]

If her historicising approach enables her to open up debates around the social in art, then this is also what betrays the complexity (some may say perversity) of Bishop’s project. After all, participatory art is defined by its resistance to conventional notions of audience, and therefore its difficulty of being brought into view. Bishop argues that an audience to participation is ineradicable, but she also concedes that the black and white images used to illustrate her text, however intriguing, are utterly inadequate for communicating the significance of the work. Meanwhile, her relationship to the projects of contemporary artists is predominantly that of included participant, rather than excluded spectator. A crucial question that arises, therefore, concerns how our access to this work is mediated by its representation. It is noticeable, for instance, that her accounts of Invisible Theatre in Buenos Aires essentially reflect Augusto Boal’s own memory of events, a contradiction when one considers the collective authorship of the performance itself. To what extent then does Bishop construct the audience experience of participatory art through her writing? She readily admits the difficulty she had in sustaining her self-image as unassailable outsider, and the problems this presented for her as a critic and writer (an amusing footnote suggests the material covered would be better served by a seminar than the book in which it is written). The perceptible shift in register across the various sections of the book – from searing critique, to authoritative overview, and ultimately enthusiastic insider – are symptomatic of this difficulty.

It may be Bishop’s active involvement within, for instance, Bruguera’s pedagogic project Arte de Conducta (2002-9) that accounts for her failure to fully unpack an early argument regarding the cynical mobilisation of participatory art by neoliberal power holders.[4]In her introduction, she indicates a process by which often publicly-funded participatory projects have been used to smooth over shortcomings in social provision by the state (another reason for her focus on examples beyond the USA, where there is markedly less state subsidy of the arts). This process is traced back in her history to the 1970s and the UK-based Community Arts movement through a sympathetic but nonetheless critical analysis of The Blackie and Inter-Action. The problem with these organisations, she suggests, is that their impetus to undo cultural hierarchies was undermined by their dependence on funding from the Arts Council, which in turn redeployed their strategies as “social provision” rather than “community empowerment”.[5]She goes on to note that the manipulation of such organisations by the state (a convenient way of “getting teenagers to paint the walls of community centres”) parallels the uncomfortable relationship of participatory art to New Labour. However, the underlying issue here – namely the failure of of the political left – is only really indicated in the book’s final pages with the remark that “participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project”.[6]In contrast to historical forms of participation, which she persuasively identifies as having emerged from or against existing political structures, whether Fascism (Italy), Communism (Russia), or totalitarianism (Argentina), she indicates that the absence of any equivalent today presents a problem for participatory art. It is not clear, though, how this political lack is reflected in the projects Bishop deems successful, such as those by Bruguera, or Althamer, for instance in the sense of their impact beyond the immediate spaces in which they intervene. By drawing primarily on UK examples and the institutional framework of the Arts Council to indicate the increased distance between artistic and political positions, Bishop falls short of addressing the extent of what she identifies early on as a “neoliberal new world order”.[7]Significantly, there is no acknowledgement of the fundamental challenge neoliberalisation poses to political forms tied to the nation-state, an issue discussed with reference to individual rights by David Harvey, whose work she references.[8]The revelation that artists who invariably oppose neoliberal forces share certain strategies with them may be intriguing, but the question left wide open is whether the political social and political targets Bishop regards as lacking are even possible within the present context?

In fairness to Bishop, her refusal to resolve these issues may point to her aim to relieve artists (and by extension art critics) of responsibilities lying outside of art’s specific area of social and political activity. She observes how “artists have internalised a huge amount of pressure to bear the burden of devising new models of social and political organisation – a task that they are not always best equipped to undertake”.[9]In her view, this pressure comes from critics and art institutions placing ethical demands on participatory art. In particular, Bishop takes issue with the approach of critics such as Grant Kester, who emphasises the socially ameliorative potential of socially-engaged practices.[10]To this extent, Artificial Hells rekindles a long-standing disagreement that has played out in the pages of Artforum.[11]Her worry is that in his recourse to ethics, Kester misses the social importance of art in testifying to and destabilising shared values, “including ethical values”. It is a criticism that invokes a different set of demands, articulated here as a productive tension between the aesthetic and the social. In other words, Bishop sees the role of the artist as bringing out social relations of tension which are otherwise repressed by maintaining aesthetic oppositions between actor/spectator, artist/participant, art/life and so on. As a result, the participatory art she advocates tends towards the socially awkward, disruptive, or even (in the case of Masotta, or Santiago Sierra) outright abusive. Her frustration with the 1970s Community Arts movement is that their imbrication within the social led them to compromise artistic values – she remarks that “aesthetic quality” was deliberately left off the agenda of the Association of Community Artists.[12]Such a judgement arguably reflects a refusal to see the social as aesthetic, an attitude that appears contradictory in the context of Rancière’s calls for a radical revision of aesthetics as congruent with the social distribution of the sensible. Connected to this, Bishop’s tendency to equate creative conflict and art that creates discomforting situations with sociopolitical forms of antagonism could be regarded as oversimplistic, raising the question of whether there are any circumstances in which quieter artistic gestures might be deemed socially antagonistic?[13]Then again, insisting that artists be allowed to “act upon a gnawing social curiosity without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt” will no doubt meet with agreement, not least from the practitioners themselves.[14]

Artificial Hells is a highly engaging introduction to the history of participatory art which reinvigorates important debates around art’s radical potential and the relationships between artist, critic and audience. In arguing for the importance of viewing socially-engaged works within their own contexts, including art historical contexts, Bishop reasserts the role of the critic in evaluating practices that appear to reject the aesthetic. The value she ascribes to conflict and disruptive forms of participation is bound to meet with resistance from certain quarters, but this is the point. The importance of this book is in the questions it opens up, for instance, concerning the aesthetics of the social and the issues around representation, and as such its major contribution will be the debates and further research it provokes.


1. Ranciere, J., The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), p.26. [↑]

2. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.277. [↑]

3. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.8. [↑]

4. Bishop was a guest lecturer at Arte de Conducta for a week in 2009, and a diaristic account of her visit features on Tania Bruguera’s website: [accessed March 2013]. [↑]

5. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.189. [↑]

6. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.284. [↑]

7. Ibid. p.12. [↑]

8. Harvey, D., A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: OUP, 2011), p.181. [↑]

9. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.284. [↑]

10. See Kester, G., Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (University of California Press, 2004), pp.17-49. [↑]

11. See Kester, G. ‘Response to Claire Bishop’s “Another Turn”’ in Artforum 44, No.9 (May 2006) 22. 22; Claire Bishop, “Claire Bishop. Responds,” Artforum 44, No. 9 (May 2006): 24. 24. [↑]

12. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.190. [↑]

13. This is a question which was raised by Shannon Jackson during the recent conference, “The Politics of the Social in Contemporary Art” (Tate Modern, London, 2013). [↑]

14. Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.39. [↑]

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Leah Lovett works collaboratively to make performances, videos, drawings, writings and workshops that explore the socialising fictions played out between people in cities and across mediated space. Her work borrows from other cultural forms like anthropology, human geography and most of all theatre, and engages strategies of camouflage, reenactment and ventriloquism. She is currently pursuing an AHRC-funded PhD, researching invisible theatre and spatial politics at the Slade. Leah is a founder member of art collective, TRIPOD, an active member of MATA (Motherhood and the Academy), and also works as a freelance writer and an arts educator in gallery, higher education and school contexts.
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