Elke Bippus

Elke Bippus is a professor of Art History and Art Theory at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).

Mathilde: At a recent symposium, you presented a paper about how recent media cultures and media technology have shifted the way participatory art is experienced now as opposed to the 1960s or even the 1990s, and how certain media expectations can affect the reception of participatory art.
Elke: The ideas discussed in my lecture, where I referred primarily to Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, responded among other things to the pejorative assessment of participation as it has been expressed for some years now, in the talk of “forced participation” or “the nightmare of participation,” for example. One critique of participation has to do with increased demands to interact with media (customer reviews and online ratings) without any actual participation. At the same time, the rise in sharing communities and share economies (communal gardens, open workshops, free supper clubs or couchsurfing) shows a persistent interest in participation and community. I am interested in these kinds of socio-cultural projects—which forms of sharing they develop and practice and which strategies of resistance they employ against economic and commercializing monopolization. I assume that (these days) it is necessary to reflect on the ambivalence of participation. It has both emancipatory-democratic and economic-commercializing potential, in equal degrees; in other words, the conditions of participation always imply exclusions as well.

Mathilde: In very general terms, how would you situate participatory art in the context of art history?
Elke: In approaching the question as to how we can think of participation today, I look back at various stages in art history where this was an issue. I focus on the promises of these strategies, but even more on the participatory practices themselves and the inherent, associated processes of inclusion and exclusion. As we know, John Cage’s composition for radios and Umberto Eco’s thoughts about an “open work” have been key to the development and discursivation of viewer participation since the late 1950s. These ideas stressed that an open artwork’s meaning lies not in the work itself, but in the “communicative structures.” Eco’s approach has often (and rightly) been subjected to critical revision. One criticism was that the open artwork suggests the structural characteristics of the artistic object and a culturally determined process of reception. The open work means only an ambiguity of art. This limited openness was broken by the expanded relationship between the object and viewer through material, spatial and temporal aspects, where interactive art pushed the possibilities of participation so much that the production of a work could become a collaborative process through direct influence on the content and the action. Actor-network theory can be useful in analyzing these kinds of works or their concepts of participation and notions of community, since it describes community as an ever-changing collective of human and non-human powers of agency and effect. Then, in the nineties, there was a focus on participation as a way of working in a social context. Socially committed art operating in the public sphere configured participation in a new way. Art explicitly integrated aspects that until then had been considered very far from art; it became a social space (Nina Möntmann), it negotiated political terms (Holger Kube Ventura), realized projects in public space (Marius Babias, Achim Könneke), worked in the community (Christian Kravagna), engaged in activism and entered into “real life” (Stella Rollig). Concepts like play, communication, intervention, experimental design, appropriation, edutainment and infotainment have since been crucial to speaking about these art forms. In these three stages, very roughly sketched here, participation becomes production- and/or receptive-aesthetic, and is contextualized socially and in terms of media. The fields mesh into one other and are now described as non-separable. Looking at the various methods, practices and strategies side by side, it occurs to me that they reflect mutual conditionality—sometimes of subject and object, sometimes of subject and material technical processes and practices, and finally of subjects, practices and communities in a social field. In this way, participation/involvement is conceptualized as a relational and procedural concept. Looking at participation now, I think it is important to consider it in aesthetic, but also social and political terms. In the stages I named above, these fields were separated from each other. But participation is not limited to a political or an aesthetic claim; it is realized in aesthetic and political practices and has both political and aesthetic effects.

Mathilde: What is micropolitics, and how does it figure into what you are working on now?
Elke: I am currently working on a research project called “Micropractices: Forms of Resistance and Engagement.” The project is part of the research initiative “Media and Participation: Between Demand and Entitlement,” which is based at the University of Konstanz. Participants include representatives from media studies, media philosophy, sociology and art theory. The question of micropractices—I’ll talk about how this connects to micropolitics in a moment—has been a focus of my work for about two years now. After a lecture, two young theorists (Sebastian Dieterich and Wiktoria Furrer) came up with the idea of connecting the philosophical critique of life forms with the development and testing of an engaged, resistant, day-to-day practice. To this effect, we understand micropractice as work on concepts, but also on ourselves and the framework conditions of our existence. It addresses the question as to how resistance and engagement can be thought of and practiced under current conditions, how and under what conditions new social practices, ways of subjectivity and life forms can develop. Our concept of micropractice is based on the same micropolitics discussed in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Micropolitics refers to a political experiment that has been reacting to the capitalist neutralization of “revolutionary politics” and the “revolutionary subject” since the 1970s: Capitalism develops “an economic order […], that could do without the State.”1 Disciplinary society is replaced by control society, and the resulting, increasingly effective power formations operate via flexible demands to normalize. As a result of these changes, the tactics and strategies of a revolutionary politics against repressive normalization are rendered ineffective. The norms are no longer repressively enforced; instead they arise as mutable social differences and deviations, and serve as standard values that are both rejected and desired. Individuals adjust their behavior accordingly. In other words, through the intent to resist, micropolitics uncovers the microscopic phenomena underlying larger, so-called molar entities (State, society, church, school, capital, businesses, etc.) while simultaneously mapping movements, lines and forces. It pays special attention to kinds of lines that are not complete or subject to State coding, but also the State-coded binary oppositions as well as the “vanishing lines” of decoding, which try to elude centers and concentrations of power. The micropolitical strategy tries to fuse the molar and the molecular together into one fabric in order to escape the classifications and co-optation of regulated behavior, and to hold one’s ground as a both a political and an existential subject.

Elke: At this point in our research, rather than investigate microscopic phenomena, we look at practices of everyday life and the subjectivation processes they trigger. Specifically, we are interested in the procedures of governmentality that take effect through body techniques and media, and that configure both subjectivation and communitization processes. Here we refer to Michel Foucault, who relegated governmentality to ways of acting and fields of praxis where techniques of governance interact with techniques of the self. One point of departure for the concept of “micropractice” as a practice of resistance (micropractices can also always become normative) is the “aesthetic of existence.” With Foucault, this can also be designated a practice of freedom, which one can use to “work on oneself, to transform oneself ”2 and “[…] from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing or thinking what we are, do or think.”3 This way of practicing freedom operates within power relationships, and fights various forms of subjugation that transform individuals into subjects, pigeonhole them into categories or tie into their personal identity.4

Mathilde: What participatory structures have you found so far in your research? Do you think it is possible to create a structure that is fair to everyone involved? What would it have to entail?
Elke: Until now, I’ve been investigating art projects from the 1970s forward that understand themselves not as social-political counter-models to aesthetically pleasing art, but as aesthetic procedure. These works problematize various relationships——the drawing of boundaries, the overlapping or fraying of the artistic and the aesthetic, the artistic and the social——to develop a political model that I attempt to conceptualize as “aesthetic politics.” In this view, politics cross the directly affective resistance of artistic practices (as it can be individually experienced in situative constellations) with discursivations of the same in artistic-aesthetic formats, and articulate a participation of division, of disagreement. A participation that——echoing Jean Luc Nancy——does not mean participation in something else, but alludes to an existential, non-categorical “being-with” (Mit-Sein) that leaves a belonging-together (Zusammengehören) incomplete. My interest, in this respect, is less the question as to which kind of participation the art projects create, but what kind of participation these projects suggest; it is an epistomological questioning.

Mathilde: How does Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons relate to this context?
Elke: Piper did Funk Lessons: A Collaborative Experiment in Cross-Culture Transfusion between 1982 and 1984. In it, she teaches an audience of people from the university, the neighborhood and the art world about the history of African-American funk and soul. With these ideas in mind, I took a closer look at a 15-minute video directed by Sam Samore showing Piper’s lessons at the University of California, Berkeley, and a text published in 1985.

What I think is interesting about the project is Piper’s assumption that a white middle class will reject the funk idiom as black working-class culture, which shaped the understanding that the audience brought to her performances. In the work, she tries to allow funk to take hold as a collective and participatory medium of self-transcendence and excitation, while simultaneously putting cultural and racial barriers up for reflection. The affirmation of funk is not done in a way that encourages a mere buzz of identification; instead the affective power of funk is interrupted in the juxtaposition of libidinous dance and analyzing reflection. In this respect, I do not think it was a priority or exclusively about creating a sense of community, or the promise of a new community. Instead, those involved in the work are already addressed as participants; they are part of a historical-cultural posture in which they subjectify and construct their identity, their thinking, perception, ideas and their attitude along internalized, often unconsciously permanent lines. The performance reflects on the interaction between self-practices and discursively conveyed norms; in it, Piper tries to free funk from its normative confines by breaking it down into individual exercises, so that it can affect individuation processes in a new way. She dismantles the affirmative-identificatory and aversive-racist dimensions of funk’s image and transforms it into a cultural medium of communication. In this respect, I wouldn’t want to speak of participation in something or in a group, but rather as an ongoing process of participation and “being-with” in joyful practices of reflection.

  1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
  1. Michel Foucault. Ästhetik der Existenz. Schriften zur Lebenskunst, edited by Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 253-280, 254.
  1. Michel Foucault in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 45.
  1. Michel Foucault: Ästhetik der Existenz. Schriften zur Lebenskunst, edited by Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 81-105, 86.

Printed in: Performing Change, Mathilde ter Heijne, Published by Sternberg Press in association with Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg