Art Trends: Tired of Participating?

Today, museums are becoming more and more like theme parks. In their actions, artists are producing fleeting social events. Colorful bar installations, carousels, or futuristic climbing scaffolds are just a few examples. There’s hardly an exhibition where visitors aren’t supposed to produce art themselves or be a part of it. But why do they constantly have to participate? Can’t they simply be viewers again? ArtMag asked international artists, curators, and critics this question.


Ayşe Erkmen
Artist, Berlin / Istanbul
Photo: Serdar Tanyeli

Ayşe Erkmen

One can be a viewer in a cinema, reader of a book, auditor to music... Visual art is particular and varied…, The art viewer never was just a viewer and being just a viewer has become less and less interesting in time… Art is varied in its form, material and location, there is no fixed material nor a standard medium, art's whereabouts can be anywhere: museum, gallery, city, countryside, sea, sky, etc.... Visual art can adopt the form of film, music, book, theater, its physical existence can be anything from paint to air… can be mistaken for not being art or being something else or being nothing. Therefore not participating and being a sole spectator is generally not in the nature of art anyway. But on the other hand there is a fabricated, instructed and studious style of art where the viewer is given the codes of participation and one knows exactly what to do. In this case it is up to the viewer to go along with the guidance or not. There opens a space where one can have the possibility of just looking and passing by or alternatively participating wholly or partly. At this point, participating wholly is a way of making sense of, understanding, and being content. It depends on the viewer whether he/she wants to be fulfilled and satisfied or the artist if he/she wants to please... or puzzle...






Nicolaus Schafhausen
Curator, Kunsthalle Vienna
© Kunsthalle Wien 2014, Photo: Sabine Hauswirth

Nicolaus Schafhausen

Current art should definitely not leave us alone. It has the potential to open up discourse, to inspire us, to jolt us. If the means for this are in events, it’s because art has to compete for viewers’ attention. Whether it’s masses of information in times of digital communication, sporting events, sociopolitical developments, or other branches of culture—contemporary art and its makers vie with countless other offers for consumer’ attention. Effective, ostentatious art products geared to participation not only draw a lot of visitors, but are also reported on often. So the crux of the issue is what is expected of art today. It should entertain and be fun. At the same time, however, art can and should be uncomfortable. It should challenge viewers and give them food for thought. Even if at some point there is an oversaturation or art not longer lives up to its potential as aesthetic commentary and free criticism, this is only the case because it doesn’t leave us alone.






Simon Njami
Curator, Author and Art Critic, Paris
Photo: David Damoison

Simon Njami

We don’t have to participate. I don’t have to participate. Participating, for me, is a passive position. It means going with the crowd. It means being politically correct. The world is dying of this participation that leaves no room for controversy or discussion. When people say participate, they necessarily mean “doing something for the good cause.” Being part of the rightful. I don’t care. I want to be able to have my own opinion, even if it does not please the majority. I cherish the critical gaze that makes me different. What would be the world if everyone would be “participating”? All the totalitarian regimes were build on participation. When we read Orwell’s 1984 we see that those who don’t participate are immediately looked at as guilty, as troublemakers. I want to be a troublemaker. I want to have an opinion of my own. Instead of participating, I want to be acting.






Mareike Dittmer
Editor Frieze d/e, Berlin

Mareike Dittmer

Asking people to participate in art calls to mind Bartleby’s mantra “I would prefer not to.” If exhibitions are events that incorporate viewers like festivals of emotions yet also demand complicity, social compatibility, and maximum attention—then distance is my preferred alternative. However, the principle of evanescence as performance interests me a lot, although it, too, relies on participation in a social context. Perhaps this is because, as opposed to ephemeral installations and situations, calculated participatory spectacles allow for coincidences and thus produce an ambiguity dedicated to the moment. Ultimately, though, the question of the pros and cons of participation—like so many other things—can only be assessed based on a concrete work and for that particular work.






Sebastian Preuss
Deputy Editor in Chief Weltkunst, Berlin
© ZEIT Verlag/Vera Rammen

Sebastian Preuss

Always more, always something new—that’s not only the case in art, but is the essence of capitalism. And if today we’re experiencing a period of increasingly hectic, increasingly greedy hyper-capitalism, then of course the carousel of purported new sensations is turning faster and crazier in art too. There’s no doubt about that. But the interesting question is: Does art have a chance of countering this development with a new slowness, with more persistence, and with less “innovation”—which the works usually aren’t anyway. I remain pessimistic, as long as art is determined by a completely overheated and unequally distributed market. Artists who want to survive can’t get out of the turbo-spiral. And we viewers—in other words, consumers—are merely children of our age. Fortunately there are a few isolated examples, albeit few and far between, outside of the bonfire of the vanities. And they’re what I’m looking for.






Zoë Gray
Senior Curator, WIELS, centre for contemporary art, Brussels
Photo: Manuel Versaen

Zoë Gray

As Duchamp famously said, it is the viewer who makes the work of art. Our role as viewer is therefore of equal importance to the role of the artist. All works of art are thus participative, whether they require physical interaction or mental engagement. We have never been simply viewers. Koki Tanaka’s approach to participation is both open and generous. We can divide his recent work into two main tendencies: setting a group of people a common task and filming their way of working together; or proposing an open-ended, shared activity in which Tanaka also participates. Walking with Dogs (Rennes, 2014) is one of these latter works and was aimed at dog-owners and their dogs, but was also open to those of us without canine companions. The artist told the gathered walkers and hounds where we were going, and then we set off. When we arrived at our end point, there was no concluding statement by the artist and for all the participants our impressions differed as to what had just happened. For some of us, it was an artwork, for others it was simply a pleasant walk. For the artist, what was important was the moment we had shared, where the usually individual act of walking one’s dog became a collective march through the city, where a solitary action became an act of solidarity.