As much as I admire her work, it occurs to me that there is a fundamental contradiction within Claire Bishop’s conception of participatory art (2012)[1. Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso]. Bishop explicitly stresses that her focus is on forms of art that involve literal social participation, but at the same time ascribes the aesthetic quality of this work to its capacity to reach a non-directly participatory audience. Participatory art practice figures as a kind of medial theatre that gains aesthetic currency only inasmuch as it discovers effective means to be more broadly communicated. Participatory art, she argues, must obtain a formal coherence that reaches out beyond the immediate participatory context. In this manner the aesthetic contours of participatory art shift away from any dimension of participatory immediacy towards aspects of medial identity. We have then, in a sense, the conditions of any other piece of art – the inevitable plays of delay and distance that are constitutive of (modern) aesthetic experience. If aesthetics is fundamentally concerned with the problematic manifestation of community – of a community that never quite substantially exists, that can only take shape via veils, representations, metaphors, all kinds of displacement – then Bishop is still concerned with this very same medial pull. She works to describe the non-participatory potential of participatory art.
What is perhaps needed is a less clearly established boundary between the participatory and the non-participatory; one that recognises that aesthetic practice, whether participatory or not, is always at once intimately concerned with realising community while also endlessly deferring any possibility that it may simply appear. Rather than firmly distinguishing between work that literally involves participation and work that does not, it seems more pertinent to consider how art both summons and withdraws from community (social engagement). There is a need to acknowledge a more general context of complex and paradoxical orientation that involves not only efforts to realise community directly (the spectacle of participation) but also and equally deliberate efforts to turn away from all thought of its realisation (Bishop’s “via negativa“).