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December 28, 2013

The Uto-pianist

Written by Atsuhide Ito


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).



If biennials are to continue to have a meaningful presence for a wider public, rather than being reduced to a gigantic theme park for tourists à la Disneyland, then at the very least the political aspiration of biennials needs to be given priority over the discursive practices of the art establishment’s inner circles. In the 2013 Venice Biennale, ten years after the 50th, it appears that the discourse of Utopia has become internalized to the degree that it has become an unconscious content of the 55th biennale.  This does not appear to be a merely coincidental development: many artists who were included in the 50th biennale were also present in the 55th biennale, and the director of the 55th, Massimiliano Gioni was also one of the curators in the 50th.


In today’s version of the Venice biennale, arguably the discourse around utopia has been turned into an exercise to evade and conceal the material conditions under which this very same discourse is practiced.  It was something radically different from this that Okwui Enwezor (2006) once imagined when he claimed that biennials should be able to generate dynamic and dialogic imaginations by renegotiating established rules and structures, and to offer exceptional and politically meaningful experiences to the visitors and participants.  Enwezor’s optimistic view could also be supplemented by Michael Hardt’s (2009) use of the notion of the common; perhaps biennials can be observed in the framework of the common, the shared property or experience as in the public libraries and the public parks.

Many biennials which emerged in the mid- and late twentieth century were institutions intended to confront and mitigate pains of a monumental and historic scale such as the Second World War and Apartheid. In fact, Documenta was one of the signals of a new beginning for Germany, and the same can be said about the Johannesburg Biennale (1995).  As public fora which attract a large number of visitors, one would expect that biennials were able to take a responsible role in providing artistic aspirations, visions and solutions to the issues with which many have been struggling in different parts of the world.  But which responsibilities are conceded to the public within the post-colonial curatorial practices in a neo-liberal context? How can or should audiences more actively participate in an art-initiated debate without becoming implicitly enslaved by the art industry? If we perceive some recent biennials from the point of view provided by Utopia Station, this might reveal a possibility to re-think participation as a fruitful strategy.

Alexandra Pirici’s and Manuel Pelmus’ Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale in 2013 was performed by several performers in the Romanian Pavilion.  As visitors walked into a large room, they encountered performers standing still as if they were playing musical statues, and after a while they moved and said a title and a year of the work they are presenting as a still performance.  This cycle was repeated as they moved on to present the next work.  As performers were wearing the most ordinary clothes such as jeans and trainers, it became hard to distinguish the performers from audiences. 

Padiglione Romania, An Immaterial Retrospective of The Venice Biennale

Perhaps deliberately, some of the performers rested from time to time in the crowd while other performers continued to act.  They sat down on the floor next to the visitors.  As new visitors walked into the room they would not have been able to distinguish performers from visitors as some performers emerged out of the crowd and joined the performance.  The artists were asking the performers to re-enact historical artworks by simply using their bodies.  However, what made this work successful was the blurring of the boundaries between audiences and performers.  The continuum between art and life then became highlighted, and simultaneously the border between them became invisible.  In so doing, the work opened the possibility that the biennale and the lives of the visitors were placed in an open continuum. Consequently the biennale came under humorous and critical gaze.

Padiglione Romania An Immaterial Retrospective of The Venice Biennale  Alexandra Pirici Manuel Pelmus

Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled (2012) in Documenta (13) was an area in which Huyghe re-arranged a former compost area in the enormous garden in which Documenta was staged.  A visitor would wander through an unfinished landscape and would wonder what was meant to be art and what was not.  However, there were at least two focal points in the site, one of which was a reclining female nude statue whose head was covered with bees and honeycomb. This was shown in his 2012 film in his retrospective exhibition at Centre Pompidou in 2013. The film provided a magnifying look at the environment in which the work developed; bee colonies as well as ant colonies overtook the reclining female figure.  Here not only the participation of visitors to Documenta was considered: Huyghe implicated insects who gathered around the statue and took over the artwork.  When bees and ants laboriously contribute to Huyghe’s work, no longer the point of invisible labour makes sense as the human conception of labour does not properly apply to bees and ants.

The visitors to Huyghe’s Untilled, perplexed as they might be, would begin to see the environment with speculation and intensity as they did not know where art started or ended.  This aspect of the artwork was even more intensified when they saw a white dog whose leg was painted pink. The visitors were left with attentive eyes which began to see life around them as an extensive space from art than the other way around.  Spectacular as Huyghe’s works tend to be, he provided a space of negotiation between the artist and audiences.  In this regard, audiences were given a proper recognition as participants of his works.  However, audiences had no names, nor did they meet each other.  On the other hand they would bring home their new eyes which would continue to blur and smudge the line between art and life.

Instead of organizers presenting artists who educate the public through critical and political contents, “participation art” needs to be rid of its patronizing pretense to be able to attain a more democratic form. Thus it is advisable to altogether avoid naming this approach “participation art”.  As seen in the works of Pirici, Pelmus and Huyghe, their works are not participation art; the artists clearly determine parameters in which visitors negotiate with the works.  However, as audiences speculate and attempt to understand what goes on in front of them the boundary between art and life breaks down, while art’s insistence on its own autonomy is simultaneously re-asserted by breaking the boundary.

In the Documenta 13, local resident volunteers worked as guides to the works and they led many visitors from one artwork to the next and responded to questions from the visitors.  This generated a holistic experience for both visitors and the local community and epitomized a temporary utopian situation in which art itself mediated between the visitors and the host community. In short, it facilitated the meetings between the guests and the hosts. In an interview in On Site, Huyghe himself also points out that he facilitates a structure for the community to organize themselves.  To follow up this thought, I would propose that the notion of utopia as a vision or image needs to be suspended. Instead, the utopian emerges as a structure from which an unforeseen event is formulated and emerges. Utopia, then, does not have to be defined as an unattainable imaginary non-place but it can be thought of as a way of facilitating an unforeseen event.  It is like a piano waiting for a pianist.  Whether the pianist needs to be a professional or an amateur, and what needs to be played, are another set of questions. What becomes clear, however, is the fact that the uto-pianist is invited to take a seat and play.



Atsuhide Ito is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the Southampton Solent University, England, and an Associate Lecturer and Tutor in Fine Art Practice at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. He holds a PhD in Fine Arts from the University of Brighton


[i] Léger is commenting specifically on the writings of Grant Kester.  “If there is a weakness in the theory of dialogical aesthetics, it is the post-political assumption of a subject outside of ideology.  Because of this, the [Kester’s] theory of dialogical aesthetics, I would argue, is more easily recuperable by liberal ideology and neoliberal institutions” (Léger 2012: 50)




Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2002) Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les presses du réel

Enwezor, Okwui. (2006) “Mega-Exhibitions And The Antinomies Of A Transnational GlobalForm” in Enwezor (ed.) The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society, 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art Of Seville. Barcelona: ActarD Inc.


Fontaine, Claire. (2005) “Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A few Clarifications”

[accessed 21st December 2013].


Foster, Hal. (2006) “Chat Rooms” in Cliare Fontaine (ed.) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery.


Gielen, Pascal.  (2011)  “Mapping Community Art” in Paul De Bruyne and Gielen (eds.) Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing.  Amsterdam: Valiz.


Hardt, Michael. 2009. “Production and Distribution of the Common” in Open 2009, No.16 The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon: Strategies in Neo-Political Times.


Huyghe, Pierre. (2013) Pierre Huyghe: On Site.  With Marie-France Rafael.

Köln: Walter König.


Léger, Marc James.  (2012) Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics.  Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.


Miessen, Markus.  (2006) The Nightmare of Participation.  Berlin: Sternberg Press


Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006) “What is a Station” in Claire Bishop (ed.) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery.