A response to ‘Are dialogic and relational aesthetics relevant to all participatory and co-creative practitioners?’

This excellent piece (Chris Fremantle’s blog 6.1.2014) frames the debate on participation and co-creation in art and design as a priviledging of process (over product) and social concerns (over artistic concerns). This presupposes in some way a radical break with what has gone before that might have particular relevance at this point in time to design, architecture and new media.

There is without question a perceived ‘Social Turn’ in art (Lind 2005/6, Bishop 2006/12, Jackson 2011) and this is frequently articulated as a concern with process and the social (Bishop 2004). However, to play devil’s advocate for a moment (as Claire Bishop herself suggests in 2012), how are these concerns not true of all art and any time? Have artists not always situated their practices within the social? In what sense is this set of concerns a new endeavour, a turn in direction from what went before?

Hannah Arendt, as a political philosopher, articulates the difference between the private and public sphere as an issue of appearance. “ For us appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others, as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality.” The most intimate and personal experiences remain shadowy and uncertain unless/until they are deindiviualised, deprivatised, transformed in a ‘shape fit for public appearance’ (1958/1998). In drawing the private into the public, she argues, we construct a new reality that is influential in furthering experience. This occurs not just through art but through everyday speech.

Arendt is talking about the creation of a commons in the public sphere that is clearly distinguishable from the private sphere i.e. the context of these thoughts is not art, but this nonetheless serves as an excellent description of what art does in the world and perhaps has done for a very long time.

An example might be Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2010. This documentary film explores the discovery of the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, capturing ‘the oldest known pictorial creations of humanity’ i.e. some 32,000 years old (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1664894/). Within the film and its exploration of the caves from different disciplinary perspectives, it is suggested that the particular quality of these cave paintings emerges out of the desire to create a certain permeability, an interpenetration between the human and the animal world. (The images predominantly depict animals on which prehistoric cultures were dependent in multiple ways). The caves reveal elements of overdrawing that are carbon dated as 3,000 years apart, indicating that this project and its imaginary and stylistic manifestations, remain consistent over significant temporal spans. Taken as a whole, one might argue that these paintings are also concerned with process and the social. The first iteration is formative, in this case, of a reality that is still relevant 3,000 years into the future. It offers a good demonstration of Arendt’s point.

Fremantle’s provocation cites Suzanne Lacy, artist and feminist,  and the three points that she articulates in relation to Allan Kaprow’s work. These are illuminating. They get close perhaps to characterizing the qualitative change that has occurred in the last 25 years and what is different about the Social Turn in art. Kaprow was concerned with ‘meaning making between people’, ‘ambiguity and questioning’ and a denial of the conventions of artistic ‘talent’ (my emphasis). These point to a distinctive set of concerns, a critique of institutionalised ways of thinking about art and a reinstatement of a fundamental relational underpinning between maker and receiver. Art through the institution had, in Kaprow’s view, become entropic, and this is indicative of a deeper entropy in education. Far from learning from experience, he argued, education enforces an uncritical apeing of dysfunctional social processes as a means to securing a future that looks like the past. This element of critique does not appear in the ancient world. It was relations to other living forms that predominated. Institutions, if indeed they existed at all, were not yet played out. Kaprow’s world was different, however. It had become people dominated, technologically mediated beyond recognition. Where the drawings on the walls of the Chauvet Caves are energized, Kaprow’s world of ‘modern’ art had exhausted itself through, he surmised, a perceived separation between art and life.

Since Kaprow, participation in and through art has moved from an activist tactic to a matter of legislation. In short, participation has become inscribed within the institutional and policy agendas. This concept no longer represents a new beginning.

Along with co-creation, participation is characterized in Fremantle’s provocation, as an intentional relinquishing of authorial control. I would like to propose a different reading.

Arendt imagines the public sphere as beginning with the individual. As individuals we are distinctive from the moment of entry into the world to the moment of our exit. Social life emerges out of this distinctiveness, acting as a catalyst to bridging through communication and dialogue. A tension exists between the intensity of experience in the realm of the private and the assurance of a reality in which others hear what we hear and see what we see. Our forms of communication are highly nuanced to cope with this tension. If it were enough to grunt at each other, we would do so. Instead we practise extraordinary skills that exploit the immense diversity on offer in organic life. The interval between beings is never fully closed. It is a kind of lacuna that is charged with creative possibility.

This, I would argue, is far from a relinquishing of authorship, particularly in an age that marks the decline of the public sphere and the increase of intensity in private life. We are authoring at every moment of our shared existence whether within art or simply within life.

In this sense I agree with Fremantle’s observation ‘that most co-creative and participatory processes are not seeking to be democratic or representative (in conventional senses)’. Through Arendt we might come to understand that any attempt to aggregate individuality is at best a temporary, transient move for the purposes of measurement. The dominant, real condition of being human is that of the individual attempting to transcend the shadowy world of private experience by bringing this forth in ways that others can recognize.

If this construction is true, then co-creation whether in architecture, design, art or everyday conversation, takes on a different meaning in which aesthetics are crucial to the practice and power of communication itself.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago & London University of Chicago Press 1958/1998

Bishop, Claire

(a) The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. London: Artforum. Feb 2006 pp178-182

(b) Artificial Hells. London Verso 2012

Herzog, Werner Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2010 (documentary film)

Kaprow, Allan Essays on The Blurring of Art and Life Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993/2003

Jackson, Shannon. Social Works Berkeley: University of California Press 2011

Lind, Maria The Future is Here  http://eipcp.net/policies/cci/lind/en/print  accessed 20.1.2014


  1. Reblogged this on CHRIS FREMANTLE.

  2. Reblogged this on JamesOliverCulture.

  3. Thank you Chris and Anne for this interesting debate. A couple of things strike me: first, that Arendt’s conceptualisation of the primacy of the individual might not stand for all places and times – you could consider all the ways in which certain elements of e.g. UK society actually teach children to be individuals – you could see this form of personhood as a learned behaviour rather than an innate one; and second, to know whether or not relational aesthetics, etc. are useful to/used within design, architecture and so on, it might be important to have some case studies that delve down into the kinds of influences that at play around relational aesthetics, where they have come from and why they have or haven’t been adopted. Perhaps Chris you have done this? I don’t know the paper you reference at the beginning of your piece. But I wonder if talking about this in such general terms might make it quite difficult to answer the kinds of questions your posts raise?

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