'The Uto-Pianist'

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    Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is and has been a strongly influential work since the French original was first published in 1998 (its English translation appearing in 2002). In its aftermath, opinions about audience participation in art have also been very polarized among critics and artists. Some of its critics include the art collective Claire Fontaine (2005), Hal Foster (2006:194) who claims that there is only a thin veneer between participation as art and participation as an everyday social activity, and Marc James Léger who, in a more recent comment on participation and “dialogical aesthetics”, points out the problem that arises when the neoliberal model of democratic participation overwrites a critically inclined attempt to re-build community (2012:50)[i]. Similarly Markus Miessen (2010) raises the point that participation itself (hereunder also actions initiated by artists) allows political leaders to delay decisions and evade responsibilities for decisions at which participants arrive communally and democratically, and according to Pascal Gielen, community art can be deployed as a form of “repressive tolerance, a hegemonic strategy which neutralizes undesirable ideas by granting them a place” (Gielen 2011:29). Following Gielen, I would like to claim that the invisible and voluntary labour of participants who contribute anonymously to the artwork is another problematic aspect of participation art, because it significantly enhances the value of the artwork as a commodity. Should participants be credited, or paid for their contribution? For example, in Tino Sehgal’s These Associations (2012) in which volunteers told their personal stories to the visitors of the Tate Modern in London, one wonders where the ownership of the work was. Does it belong to the artist, the volunteers or the audiences who stopped and listened? In the following, while keeping the question of invisible labour in mind, I intend to discuss the relationship between biennials, utopia and participation. In this article, rather than presenting a full analysis of utopia – which notably is one of the themes which have inspired artistic and critical discourses significantly - I would like to question the possibility of visitors of biennials to actively engage in the debate about the relationship between art and utopian politics. Let me start with the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.

    The 50th Venice biennale, entitled Dreams and Conflicts, led by the then director Francesco Bonami, included an area called Utopia Station which was curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija (2003). Utopia Station showcased works about utopia by more than 150 artists. Clearly the three curators’ statement highlights their attempt to encourage the visitors to active participation:

    The Station in other words becomes a place to stop, to contemplate, to listen and see, to rest and refresh, to talk and exchange. For it will be completed by the presence of people and a programme of events. Performances, concerts, lectures, readings, film programme, parties, the events will multiply (Nesbit, Obrist, Tiravanija 2006: 186).
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalSeismopolite: Journal of Art and Politics
    Publication statusPublished - 28 Dec 2013


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