ps/o6.e. materialwitnessmontpelier
ps/o6 public education | school of echoes | pedagogy of the ear

Ultra-red | Material Witness
Cultural Practice and the Organization of Participation

Vermont College MFA, Union Institute & University
Lecture: Sunday, 4 February 2007, 18.30 - 20.00
Workshop Session One: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 13.30 - 15.00
Workshop Session Two: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 10.45 - 12.15

Nobel Hall
36 College Street
Montpelier, VT 05602
Tel. 802-828-8500

In the past ten years, curators, art educators and artists have begun to investigate how participation comes to be a form of cultural practice in and of itself. These investigations have received widespread attention in the art world thanks to recent, and very public, critical debates on the aesthetic merits of "relational art" (alternatively called interactive, conversational, dialogical, social process, etc.).

As artists, we have at our disposal a wealth of examples in artworks, critical writings and entire art movements that emphasize the active role of the spectator. From the Happenings of the '60s, conceptualism in the wake of the author's "death," to contemporary forms of "relational art," it has been a distinctive feature of contemporary art to conceive of reception as the site of meaning and the audience as participants. While critics debate the aesthetic and ethical bases of that participation, there exists a wealth of discourses on the forms and procedures of its organization. Social movement scholarship written by activists and sociologists approaches participatory cultural practices as a central object for interrogation. But in much of the art world's discussions of participatory art, names like Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire as well as traditions around participatory-action research, popular education and participatory-democracy remain largely absent.

The purpose of this workshop is to introduce some of those terms and histories for reflection by artists. It is my contention, that as long as critical discussions of "relational art" (as in the relation between artist and audience, between audiences, and between imaginary and symbolic knowledge as mediated by the art object) ignore the struggles for organizing participation as a political practice, the question of art and politics will continue to presume the absolute incommensurability of those terms. In other words, if the relational in aesthetics has nothing to do with the political organization of participation, then art remains irreducibly outside the actual practice of our politics in the cultural field.

Factilator: Dont Rhine


13.30 - 13.45 INTRODUCTION

13.45 - 14.15 SMALL GROUPS
Divide the group into six small groups, one for each of the assigned readings listed below. Each group should analyze the reading. The faculty attending the workshop should meet in a separate group to give the students autonomy in developing their ideas. The following questions can assist in their analysis:

  1. Who are the participants named by the author(s)?
  2. How are participants convened? By what process, and by whom?
  3. What is the basis of that participation; i.e., a short-termed activity, a process without defined termination, an abstract idea like "struggle" or "revolution", etc.?
  4. How does the success or value of the participation get evaluated?
  5. What are the strengths and/or weaknesses, as you see it, in the way the author(s) define participation?

The six readings are as follows:

Brian Wallis, ed, "Town Meeting: Cultural Participation," Democracy: A Project By Group Material (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1990): 215 - 230.
Note: Published manuscript of one of four "Town Meetings" organized by the collective Group Material (Doug Ashford, Julia Ault, Felix Gonzalez-Torres) at the Dia Foundation performance space at 155 Mercer Street in New York, on November 22, 1988.

Sarah Pierce, "Roundtable Discussion, Participants: Vaari Claffey, Louise Walsh, Declan Long, Susan Kelly, Willie McKeown, Grant Watson, and Sarah Pierce," Metropolitan Complex 6 (2004):
Note: Originally printed as a broadsheet in an edition of 500 on the occasion of Martha Rosler's "Monumental Garage Sale," Project Arts Centre, Dublin, Ireland, curated by Grant Watson.

Saul D. Alinsky, Rules For Radicals [excerpt] (NY: Vintage Books, 1971/1989): 113 - 125.

Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed [excerpt], trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (NY: The Seabury Press, 1968/1970): 119 - 126.

Francesca Polletta, "Democracy In Relationship: Community Organizing And Direct Action Today" [excerpt], Freedom Is An Endless Meeting (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002): 176 - 189.

Muhammad Anisur Rahman, "The Theory And Practice Of Participatory Action Research" [excerpt] The Challenge of Social Change, ed. Orlando Fals Borda (Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc, 1985): 107 - 117.


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11.15 - 11.45 SMALL GROUPS

Two small groups should be formed for students to develop ideas for how the basic principles from the readings might inform curatorial/exhibition projects, social art, community-based art, activist art, and other forms of production. The groups can use the following questions to guide their discussion:

  1. How do we identify the audience of an artwork, exhibition, performance, etc?
  2. How is an art audience convened? By what process, and by whom?
  3. What do the terms of participation imply for artwork? Think about the terms and procedures discussed by Alinsky, Freire, Polletta, Rahman, et al? It may be easier to think this through in relation to performance or time-based art. But what about painting, photography, sculpture practices? How do the principles of participation impact these practices?
  4. How does the success or value of the participation get evaluated?


Dont Rhine would like to thank the two co-chairs of the MFA program, Miwon Kwon and Sharon Hayes for inviting him to participate in the February 2007 residency at Vermont College. Thanks to Jessica Lutz, the MFA Administrator, for making the arrangements and for enthusiastically supporting the workshop. Special thanks to the faculty for their warm reception to the project and for making Dont feel at home for the week. Thanks to the incredible students whose excitement and commitment to the workshops generated important insights and analysis.

"In the event, however, that men perceive reality as dense, impenetrable, and enveloping, it is indispensable to proceed with the investigation by means of abstraction. This method does not involve reducing the concrete to the abstract (which would signify the negation of its dialectical nature), but rather maintaining both elements as opposites which interrelate dialectically in the act of reflection." (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968: 95).