Architecture, visual and performing arts at the intersection of political activism and processes of social inclusion have produced diverse participatory practices. Although many examples of social participation emerged primarily throughout historical avant-garde movements, the notion of participation came to the fore in the 1960s as one of the fundamental concepts of contemporary art. At the time, artists’ interdisciplinary collaborations brought up new forms of engagement involving both the public and other artists and included a variety of performative approaches, such as happenings and performances, often one-on-one, installations, and site-specific works. The emergence of new technologies has also stimulated a physical engagement on the part of the viewer in a work of art. In this overall framework, the physical involvement of visitors/spectators and the increasing focus on human relations in the visual arts have been considered an essential precursor to social, aesthetic and institutional change (Bourriaud, 2002 ). Museums and galleries have gradually begun to invite visitors not to consume the viewing experience passively, but rather to engage as active cultural participants. Nina Simon has analysed these strategies from different perspectives that combined define the Participatory Museum (2010). As suggested by the title of her book, this museum is delineated as a place that fosters community building, diversity, inclusion and cultural exchange. Through this lens, a model of the participatory museum contributes to the creation of new arenas for social, cultural and aesthetic experiences that generate and host political debates.
The traditional Western theatrical setting as well as the model of the black box display a clear separation between the artists and the spectators’ spaces of action in which spectators are expected to passively sit and watch, whereas artists actively move and speak. These settings are based on the expectation of bodily self-control and cognitive and intellectual attention introduced in the 18th century by the new urban bourgeois elite. The entire history of the 20th century avant-garde can be seen as a constant challenge to the audience’s passivity within different artistic disciplines and the turn towards participatory modes of theatre-making as the result of various transformations in theatre aesthetics and design. One of the most radical turning points in Western theatre history originated with Antonin Artaud’s Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty (1958 ), which introduced the paradigm of physical involvement aiming to expose the audience to strong feelings and emotions.
On a theoretical level, the semioticians Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes in The Open Work (1962 in Bishop 2006) and The Death of the Author (1968 in Bishop 2006), respectively, suggested that artworks convey a multiplicity of codes and do not represent a singular meaning. Eco stressed that the role of the viewers in visual art, music, and literature, is to compose independently their way to access the object. Barthes’ ideas about the death of the author resonate with contemporary art practices that proclaim the death of the creator and the openness of a work to an array of interpretations and modes of completion by the viewer. In a similar vein, Jacques Rancière suggests in his Emancipated Spectator (2009 ) that spectators as “interpreters” translate what they experience during the performance into personal narratives. Spectators participate in the production of meaning by interpreting the performative signs that unfold on stage through their knowledge and the memories of the movements and performances they have attended in the past. This process implies that the audience is never passive during an artistic event but rather actively participates in an emotional, sensorial, cognitive, and at times, physical experience. By having testified to the performance experience once it is completed, the spectators become storytellers of the event far beyond the intentions of its creator.
Historically, dance has created a reason for people to come together and transform ordinary life into a physical and emotionally collective adventure. Through dance, it is possible to embody a specific social and political order, just as through choreography it is possible to represent aesthetic, political and ideological forms. For instance, postmodern dance experiments in the 1960s challenged the concepts of dance technique and choreographic paradigms by using “pedestrian movements” inspired by everyday gestures or actions. Postmodern dancers and choreographers experimented with alternative ways of aggregating bodies and movements on stage and non-theatrical sites that continue in the present-day. Dance and choreography can produce individual and collective reactions by disclosing a wide range of mobilisations of bodies and generating experiences that create a sense of community. Occupying a space together and sharing movement encourage empathy, affect our perception of the work and stimulate an understanding of it on a sensory level. Through dancing, we always embody a specific social and political order, and therefore dance and performance can challenge how bodies move, relate to each other, and participate in society. For the above reasons, the increasing interest in more collaborative and participatory modes of working is connected to the search for new forms of political mobilisation, but also the need for reconfiguring the hierarchical ways in which dance is performed. Collaboration is certainly the product and the instigator of political and social models that function equally and fluidly between different roles. Although this aspect of participation involves the issue of authorship, the act of sharing, partially or entirely, the authorial control over a (dance) performance allows a democratic process to emerge that challenges the role of the choreographer as a single author.
The shift from the traditional theatrical setting and the black box to the exhibition model of the white cube has provoked a radical change in the way artists and spectators can produce and access dance and dance artefacts. Inside museums and art galleries, visitors/spectators are invited to have a more direct experience of dance or performance and to physically take part in the performance or interact with the exhibited artefact. Participation has been recognised as a proven means of lowering the barriers to access museums and cultural institutions. Thanks to the presence of dance and performance, museums have turned into multi-inclusive cultural and social spaces. Claire Bishop problematises the issues around labour and ethics that arise in a specific kind of participatory performances that she calls “delegated” and in which, artists hire non-professionals to perform “on behalf of the artist following his/her instructions” (2012). Besides the aforementioned issue of authorship and the risk of labour exploitation, participation has been recognised as a proven means of lowering the barriers to access museums and cultural institutions and thanks to the presence of dance and performance, museums have turned into multi-inclusive cultural and social spaces.
Artaud, Antonin (1958) The Theatre and Its Double. Translated from the French by Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press.
Bishop, Claire (ed.) (2006) Participation. Documents of Contemporary Art. London and Cambridge (MA): Whitechapel and The MIT Press.
Bishop, Claire (2012). Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity. In: October, vol. 140, pp.91–112. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41684268.
Bourriaud, Nicolas (2002 ) Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.
Rancière, Jacques (2009) The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and Brooklyn: Verso.
Simon, Nina (2010) The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz (CA): MUSEUM 20.