Can Beyza Uçak


What do we make of the art we cannot sell?

︎ Participatory Art Practice
︎ The Commercial and Artistic Value of Participatory Art

︎  Visual Pleasure and Aesthesis
︎ Collective Desire and Utopia


What do we make of the art we cannot sell?

Reading Turkey’s Unconscious Images exhibition as a participatory art project

The exhibition entitled, Turkey’s Unconscious Images, is a ‘multi participant’ art project in which the collaborative creative process is the subject of the resulting meaning. Beyond the contribution of writers and speakers in the field of social sciences and cultural practice, in order to read the exhibition series in an artistic context, communication theory, psychoanalysis, and media studies as well as the theory and practice of modern art should be taken into account.

Participatory Art Practice

While it is certainly inconceivable in today’s world to separate the connection between the audience and the art object from digital experiences, the practice of participatory art is not a technological process nor is it bound to the communication technologies alone. The audience, or ‘everyone’ has been involved in the creative process of the ‘avant-garde’ in 1917, ‘Neo avant-garde’ in 1968, and ‘participatory’ art since 1989. Such collaborative processes inevitably position this school of art directly opposite to the mainstream, bringing with it the questioning of modern life by society, often characterised by humour or human fragility that does not take the role of the artist or the art itself seriously.

Participatory art questions the non-existent boundaries between artist and art object, artist and audience, audience and context, by putting co-creation at the centre of the project. Through this questioning, it aims to inspire provocative questions: If aesthetic choices are made by participants or the audience and not the artist, where exactly does the artwork “end”? And where does the artist’s “responsibility” begın in a process so open to intervention?

And most importantly, what takes the place of the aesthetic that is lost when the sacred, serious artist steps out from behind the canvas to hold the audience’s hand?

To understand these dynamic questions, we need to scratch under the surface of concrete meaning and aim to understand the interacting tensions within the practice of participatory art. Participatory practice gains meaning through the tensions that push and pull one another on many axes: collective as opposed to individual ownership of a work of art, where the process replaces the meta as the subject… As Curator Dan Graham said, “All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art”.

We were introduced to the concept of Psychogeography in the middle of the last century. Referred to by Surrealism as "wandering" and the Dadaist practice as "urban heritage”, psychogeography is expressed in the postmodern era as wandering the streets of a city without any expectation of a result or in any particular direction, to walk into one’s subconscious. The concept has encouraged “random” methods in the form of predetermined but meaningless directives such as “Walk two streets left, three right, then three to the West”, or the use of another city’s map to explore the streets so as to increase one’s sensory awareness of the city. Shifting the focus from the individual’s subconscious to the subconscious of an urban community, what Guy Debord termed the “dérive”, refers to the body and city as a mode of exploration and the coincidental as a material.

The process eclipses the final visual, like the three thousand collages, ten thousand images and metaphors which we cannot take our eyes off. Rather than create new objects of desire Debord thought that the practice of critical culture had reframed existing cultural expressions in order to re-create them. With this exhibition series, we set out to explore the meaning of the repetitive symbols and metaphors that emerge in these collages for our society.

The détournement technique, used by the Situationist International group which was active for a brief period in the mid-1960s, combined existing images and their striking slogans with collages, differing from the Dadaist photomontage and the surrealist montage -which aimed to reveal the meaning- in that it stays true to two strategies: destructive irrationality and socio-political actuality.
The collages in this exhibition can be literally read as “détournements” of deep emotional state, while the insights are frames that we have compiled from collective consciousness.

This provocative union without a doubt triggered countless debates in art history, and continues to do so today. Such discussions took place in the 'collective art' practice, which combined education and art practice in Europe in the 1970s, playing a significant role in postmodern practice in abandoning the idea of the artist as a producer.

These projects, which we can also call “Post-Studio” practice, have also been referred to as participatory, conceptual, contextual art, “experimental collectivism” and “social practice” since the 1990s, and have even become the central focus of international art events like the Venice Biennale. They have featured in the undergraduate programmes of such world-renowned art schools as the California College of Arts or Central Saint Martins. They have been celebrated under categories such as the “International Participatory Art Award”. Naturally, any Situationist International artist would have been horrified to receive training or an award in this field, whose critique and description are more sophisticated than static works.

However, since the 1990s, artists have wanted to overthrow the traditional hierarchy between the art object and the audience. They aim to reposition themselves as collaborators and situation creators, rather than as individual creators of unique objects, observing society from a distance. This wish, embraced by an increasing number of artists, replaces the art object as a moveable, exhibited commodity, with ongoing, process-related “projects” with an uncertain beginning and end. As a result of this transformation, the role of the audience has shifted from one of the passive spectator to participant and co-creator.

Relational art
In the 1990s, Nicolas Bourriaud takes the “spectacle” as the central reference point:

“Today, we are in the further stage of spectacular development: the individual has shifted from a passive and purely repetitive status to the minimum activity dictated to him by market forces . . . Here we are summoned to turn into extras of the spectacle.’

The audience, under the constant bombardment of images of cultural life, may experience uncertainty in interpreting humble collaborative endeavours as art, yet it is not surprising that participatory art features in the exhibition programmes of public institutions such as schools, museums and galleries.

The Commercial and Artistic Value of Participatory Art

The reason why we increasingly hear such terms as interdisciplinary, research-based, activist or "Interventionist" art is that these terms are today talked about even in traditional art fields like galleries and museums and can be criticised by the masses.
However, whilst participation is straightforward and its production democratic, participatory practice offers an experience that is more difficult to evaluate than traditional single-artist works. The difficulty could be a result of art world contributors’ lack of theoretical and terminological knowledge in evaluating the participatory art experience.

Marketing a collectively owned project is far more challenging than a painting or three-dimensional work by an individual artist. Participatory art, unlike decorative works that can be taken home and hung on the wall, requires formal activities such as print publications, workshops, forums and performances. For this reason, we are more likely to see participatory art taking place in biennials and socio-cultural exhibitions as a result of public commissions paid for by municipalities and educational institutions.

The central role of non-commodified experiences and the insignificance of aesthetics in participatory art gives the opportunity to create a conceptual and complex social practice experience that is not favoured by the commercial art market. While the rejection of aesthetics is not a new development in art history, the creation of collective art is not inherently opposed to aesthetics.

Instead, it prioritises giving the audience a new status that it has not previously experienced while giving the artist unprecedented dynamism without the pursuit of an aesthetic ‘result’. Interactive 'results' such as public archives, reading and viewing areas, parades and demonstrations, short broadcasts, photographs and videos documenting the process also become part of the experience.

What happens to the divine aesthetic as the importance of aesthetics in art erodes? It is easy to understand why many artists reject the role of seller or ‘brand’ and wish to escape the tyranny of the aesthetic in the 21st century, where the art market, conservative cultural hierarchies, and the aesthetic canon have become indistinguishable from one another. Creating yet another visual satisfaction may be far from the artist’s desire, as consumer culture is increasingly becoming a consumer-producer culture. For this reason, from the perspective of participatory art projects, aesthetics turns at best into a purely visual concept, at worst a secondary, unimportant concept of 'exclusivity'.  

Visual Pleasure and Aesthesis

The subject of participatory art is beyond aesthetics. Nevertheless, we do not have to isolate it from the human function of visuality and evaluate this form of art from a hyper-positivist perspective with its benefits and results as the sole focus. As Claire Bishop frequently states in her articles, we should deal with aesthetics not through the point of view of "visual pleasure" as introduced by Kant, but through the Greek root of the word “aesthesis”, which does not reduce it to logic, virtue and rationality, but instead a unique, autonomous experience. Offering such an experience aims to liberate the participant, the artist, and with the boundaries we question between these two dynamics, the art itself, as well as to free institutional bureaucracy from Fordist specialisation and the pressure of accountability and perception.

The Algerian-born French philosopher Rancière has written extensively on "aisthesis" and liberating the audience. His use of contrasts such as individual versus collective authorship, author versus viewer, active versus passive experience and unstructured art versus life. He has given us brand new terminology in our discussion of participatory art. This new terminology offers an approach beyond Walter Benjamin's theory on the "author as creator" and uniqueness, and Guy Debord's rejection of the society of the spectacle and the consumer spectacle. Rancière limits participatory art neither to the explanatory pedagogy of museum dealers nor to installations that attempt to warn ‘unsuspecting’ citizens that they are being invaded by images of consumer society. For Rancière, the involvement of the outsider is paramount and this approach whilst transforming the "show" into a performance, also empowers the viewer into a person who can take action, liberating them from the passive role of "spectator".

Collective Desire and Utopia

The Turkey's Subconscious Images exhibition looks at collective desire and utopia, two recurring themes in exhibitions, art production and literary productions of the last decade, and takes as a starting point images created by the masses for the masses.
Since the participants creating the works were unaware of any artistic context, the project aims to go beyond creating a painting for a ‘show’ to be experienced within the framework of traditional art. It conveys its own idea in the simplest form and using the simplest technique.

As both the curator and the enthusiastic audience of the exhibition, I would like to thank all our “participant-artists”, “active visitors” who left their identity as audience member behind to “take part” in the exhibition, and the reader of this article, for experiencing with me these works that I have so often admired, exclaiming, “What a dream for a historical avant-garde or situationist artist-writer!”; works that have escaped the many technical, theoretical and philosophical limitations mentioned above; that I have hidden away from any aesthetic intervention or interpretation.

With this as your starting point, turn over the concepts of "audience", "authority" and "process" in your mind as you examine the works in the exhibition. As the audience, you can think -and dream- through unconscious images about the anonymous individual whose work you are seeing, the collective experiences of which you are both a part, the sensory atlas of the last two years, the absence of a finish line of any process in "real life" or in art, without the need to involve Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze or Jacques Lacan in the meaning-making process. The exhibition goes beyond making the audience aware of the process; it hopes to share the meaning produced as an experience by also emphasising the processes of participation.

The collages, which are the "results" of unconscious research, are mediator art objects or imaginations that bridge the gap between the "artist" and us, the secondary audiences who were not involved in the process. Thus our exhibition enriched by participatory art, aside from upsetting traditional hierarchies, also offers the opportunity to analyse and even feel the historical existence of the audience through our common experiences.