The Art of Assembly
“ The crisis of democracy and the truth are one and the same” William Davies. Why We Can’t Agree on Whats True Any More (Guardian Long Reads)
“Social media are a truth-less public sphere by design” Noortje Marres: Why We Can’t Have Our Facts Back
This essay follows up on an article, ‘Beyond the Evidence’ posted in September 2019, an overview of an important contemporary art movement ‘Evidentiary Realism’ seen from the perspective of the wider epistemic and political crisis, a disturbing war on knowledge arising in part from the ‘vanishing’ of the deliberative space between social knowledge and social action. The article argued that in the face of these conditions, that these artists showed the urgency and the difficulty of progressing the ideal of a ‘knowledge democracy’.
However the one area from which that article shied away were the locations where the project of renewing the public sphere were being taken most seriously in a practical sense. And that is the world of participatory democracy of citizens’ assemblies or mini-publics. There were a number of reasons for this neglect. To begin with (lets be honest) for artists and activists much of this field can seem rather dull, top-down, and bureaucratic. Maybe it has to be. Maybe in politics the mundane is often be what is most required. But for whatever reasons there is little of the cultural vibrancy, the life and death urgency that make the work of groups such as Forensic
Architecture so compelling. And this leads to the worrying suspicion that for art as for journalism the old adage “if it bleeds it leads” continues to apply. The more serious objection is that projects based on engagement with institutional power such as government and regulatory agencies are bound, almost by definition, to deliver the opposite of the radical change required.
This like all assumptions, needs to be questioned as on close inspection an increasing number of these experimental projects entailing a participatory dimension are yielding impressive and sometimes radical outcomes coupled with a new kind of legitimacy. This article stems from a desire to get a better sense of what is going on now and where it might go. This of course involves also involves interrogating the movement’s contradictions and limitations.
Finally there is also an experimental aspect of this essay, particularly in the latter sections and concluding paragraphs. This is where the mystery at the heart of what ‘the public’ actually is suggests the need for a new ‘curatorial landing zone’. A transitional bridge in which two distinct contemporary art movements: Evidential Realists AND Dialogic or Participatory arts might be placed in a generative proximity. This would be a space where (armed with enough practical knowledge) we might imagine how these movements suggest alternatives to existing models of assembly. And transform them into something as rich, strange and dangerous as real world publics actually are.
The breakdown in the relationship between knowledge and democracy (the epistemological crisis) is not a marginal issue but sits at the heart of a battle for what is left of public sphere in the face of the rising tide of fascism. Continued emphasis on resistance through exposure of injustice and state or corporate criminality through fact checking and dissemination of evidence is not enough. A significant renewal of the damaged public sphere can only begin when evidence and facts start to become what sociologist Noortje Marres has called ‘public facts’. 1
But how? Where does “the rubber hit the road”? This article takes up where the final paragraphs of an earlier article ‘Beyond the Evidence’ 2 left off, arguing that the most obvious place to begin looking for a renewal of the public sphere lies in the fast evolving world of ‘citizens’ assemblies’ a movement of so called mini-publics based on the deliberations of randomised groups of citizens chosen by sortition, a form of stratified civic lottery. To be clear this is not being put forward as a panacea or an ideal but as a starting point and an opportunity to formulate alternatives to the dominant institutional modes of assembly currently on offer.
Over the last two decades citizens assemblies have become professionalised, indeed many would argue over professionalised. But for any radical challenges or interventions to existing modes of assembly to be credible will require a critical understanding of how actual citizens’ juries and assemblies work in practice. This text aims to make a start by providing a wide ranging examination of the conditions from which the current wave of interest and development has emerged. It is an excursion that also takes account of the range of critical (even hostile) voices, for whom the whole discourse of democratic participation remains a distraction from the need for direct radical and structural change. Finally the text proposes that some of the flaws in existing assemblies might be addressed by bringing together the methods of two contemporary art movements, Evidentiary Realism with Participatory or Dialogical art, of the ‘social turn’. The concluding paragraphs is thought experiments in which cooperative proximity between these two movements is envisaged as a conceptual and curatorial testing ground or transitional bridge towards the ideal of a ‘knowledge democracy’.
Long before the world went into cryogenic suspension there was already a new wave of interest in ‘citizens’ assemblies’ and other forms of deliberative democracy. These so called ‘mini-publics’ (which also include Citizens Juries, planning cells, consensus conferences) are widely seen as a method of public engagement with the potential to take us beyond today’s malign and predatory public sphere. The importance of these developments have (like everything else) been heightened by the Covid 19 emergency that has propelled even the most nakedly reactionary regimes back into the arms of experts, endlessly parroting the claim that their decisions are being ‘guided by the science’. Although this slogan is supposed to reassure it cannot hide the fact that politics can not be delegated to science and science offers no escape from the politics of radical uncertainty. But neither does uncertainty make knowledge and evidence redundant. On the contrary it has never been more important for us to acquire the tools to help us make Informed judgements on “more or less valid contributions to public knowledge“. Writing early in 2020 in the New York Times 3 the Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, described how Vladimer Putin smirked his way through a TV interview, during the annexation of Crimea, all the while proclaiming that Russian soldiers “were just locals who had bought Russian military uniforms”.
Pomerantsev argued that this wasn’t so much “lying as demonstrating that he doesn’t care at all about facts and by extension, the rules governing his behaviour”, it is an approach that effectively “removes the space where one can make a rational case…”. One could even advance the proposition that disdain for facts is an important part of the appeal of this type of politics, drawing as it does on the infantile delusion of absolute potency that Freud called ‘magical thinking’.
Currently the UK government’s scientific advisory body of experts (SAGE) is still a ‘black box’ with much of their membership and deliberations have until recently been shrouded in secrecy. The growing alarm at this secrecy has led the respected Nuffield Council on Bioethics to go onto the offensive publishing a – plea 4 for the introduction of greater public participation in decision making and arguing the case for citizens’ assemblies as a means of achieving this intensified level of participation. “Either” they wrote “there is no capacity to open up a wider public discourse, or there is no political will to do so. […] urgent public engagement exercises may be difficult, but …there are ways – citizens’ assemblies, for example, going beyond simple consultation, are effective in facilitating public deliberation. Capacity should not be an excuse. So is there a lack of political will?”
Can these calls for more direct participation in democracy be dismissed as yet another bout of Liberal displacement activity, distracting us from the urgent task of taking direct action against the bleak realities of the neo-feudalism with its raging inequalities ? This article argues that the relationship between the democratic deficit and rising tide of fascism is not just a side show and cannot be so easily dismissed.
In 2013 Felix Stalder published a short book Digital Solidarity that summarised an important body of knowledge around what were then the frontiers of invention for new forms of collective action. Stalder’s investigations ranged from the formal deliberations of a citizens’ Icelandic assembly (or Constitutional Council) as they sought to remake the country’s constitution through to the fluid structures of the ‘general assemblies’ that were the democratic core of mass occupations that erupted across the world from 2010 –2014, sometimes called the Occupy Movement or Movements of the Squares. Stalder celebrated (with reservations) the achievements of these assemblies in developing a variety of ingenious methods by which daily mass meetings of the ‘occupations’ were able achieve a remarkable degree of decision making consensus through inclusivity and the integration of a multiplicity of voices.
For many who were present and participated in these occupations the experience of collective decision making in the daily assemblies where democratic participation was not an abstraction but a lived reality was deeply inspiring and formative. For those involved dismissing the ideal of a participatory democracy as a mere liberal hokum or folk politics flies in the face of what for many was a life changing experience of democratic agency in action. However Stalder went on to point to the limits of neo-anarchist approaches, arguing that whilst they successfully highlighted the need to “develop functioning alternative institutions” […] “They were unable to articulate a strategy of how to engage with the state, and how to inscribe new agendas and new orientations into state institutions.” Why is that? Why were they unable to scale up this model of participatory deliberation and decision making beyond the occupation of the squares? 5
What follows is an attempt to build on Stalder’s work arguing that the design of ever more sophisticated forms of ‘citizens’ assemblies’ and so called ‘mini-publics’ are one possible means of addressing the problems he identified. BUT only if public deliberation is combined with a keener sense of the importance of the the role of Knowledge, of experts and expertise, in a form that recasts the traditional power relationship between *citizens*, the *political class* and the *experts*. Anything else would simply re-instate the “manufactured consent” of the previous status quo. It is also why this article places so much emphasis on the institutionalised forms of assemblies meaning “democratic devices that provide citizens with a formal role in policy, legislative or decision making”.
A Temporary Truce in the War on Knowledge
One of the most visible consequences of the pandemic has been the revival in the status of experts. Scientists particularly in the natural and behavioural sciences have regained some of their former power and authority. Ministers at press briefings are invariably flanked by a pretorian guard of scientific advisors. To an extent we are in danger of replacing the adversarial politics of reactionary populism with the forensic politics of the technocrats. Though we might have cause to welcome the return of evidence based judgements on the relative legitimacy of rival truth claims, we are again in danger of excluding the public from direct involvement in the process of decision making process (except every 5 years or so as voters). It is only by ensuring that experts and the political class are joined by an active and informed citizenry can we move towards the ideal of a ‘knowledge democracy’ which must be an essential element of any viable post-corona planetary reset.
A month or so before lock down in a Guardian review of Thomas Piketty’s eleven hundred page tome Capital and Ideology, William Davies 2020s asked “what would drive someone to write a book like this”? Davies’s answer is instructive and worth quoting at length, “.. if Piketty has one core methodological belief it is in the emancipatory power of public data: that when people are given sufficient evidence about the structures of society, they will insist on greater equality until they are granted it. Amid the distraction and perpetual outrage of our disfunctional public sphere, this enlightenment confidence in empirics feels beamed in from another age. It also makes for a unique scholarly edifice, that will be impossible to ignore” 6 Under current circumstances such faith in the emancipatory power of facts and evidence seems optimistic at best. Indeed it spotlights the fact that the political crisis is inseparable from the epistemic or knowledge crisis.
So what is meant by the term “public data” in today’s “disfunctional public sphere” of “distraction and outrage” ? Sadly the current configuration of the public sphere will make it all too easy to ignore” Piketty’s “scholarly edifice”. Davis’ paragraph however does implicitly suggest the following important supplementary question: what the are the conditions required to make data public again? Or more directly how might facts become “public facts” ? if we assume that the public domain as currently constituted is no longer up to the task. what then exactly has to change ? If we are looking to assemblies we should begin by a close look at an ambitious example.
The Climate Assembly
Among the many things that Covid has taught us is what it is we lose when we lose the right to assemble. Not only is the immediate sense of loss and dislocation palpable it is also quite directly political. Apart from the weakening or even suspension of parliaments and and the compromising of public protests, in the UK the long planned ‘Climate Assembly: the Path to Zero Carbon, 6 whose third meeting, was to have taken place on March 21-22 was suspended.
Unsurprisingly nobody outside of those directly involved cared or were even aware of this assembly’s adjournment. But its absence was keenly felt not only by those who know that tackling climate damage still remains our eras’s most urgent task but it was also troubling for those for whom the world wide movement of citizens assemblies represent an important staging post in tackling the epistemological and political crisis that is now playing out in ways few of us ever imagined.
To give some idea of what is at stake its important to consider the scale of this experiment in public participation. In some ways representing a gold-standard in terms of rigour scale and ambition for this kind of politics. It had been in the planning for many months and was commissioned by 6 powerful parliamentary committees who were prepared to support and commit to the project. The participants had been recruited from across the whole UK through ‘sortition’ (a kind of civic lottery, something like jury service) from an original call out to 30,000 individual households and eventually narrowed down to a semi random stratified sample of 150 individuals. Experts and stakeholders had also been assembled to assist, not as authority figures but as partners able to introduce the evidence regarding the different aspects of the overall problem of transition to zero carbon and to remain on hand to answer technical questions. This could have been a national game changer in how citizens, stake-holders, experts and elected parliamentarians might work together, help to flesh out what a knowledge democracy might actually look like in practice, or that at least is he hope.
Fortunately the assembly has been successfully re-started on-line. We will have to wait until the evaluation process to discover how much of a limitation the inability to meet in person placed on proceedings. Particularly in relationship to the ability of assembly members to be able to draw on the expertise and question the experts. This will be important knowledge for many of us who are having to curb the delights of attending festivals and conferences. It is extremely valuable that recordings of the expert advice remains on the assembly website including some of the Q&A with between assembly members and experts.
Importantly genuine evaluation will happen initially through two specialists in ‘deliberative democracy’ Stephen Elstub and David Farrel. They will have to look at the experiences of the participants, how the meetings were moderated, how participants were recruited, how expertise was presented. And importantly how the outcomes informed the parliamentary activity and to what degree these deliberations influenced or shaped government action.
Digging more deeply the “Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST) 7 at Cardiff University will build on Elstub and Farrel’s evaluation by examining the “information on climate change provided to assembly and how members engaged with these complex policy areas”. The investment in this evaluation process should make the Climate Assembly a rich resource in evaluating the potential and limitations of deliberative participatory democracy.
Knowledge – Deliberation – Decision –
The climate assembly and its associated research program is evidence of the progress that has been made in mobilising institutional resources and structures with the potential of moving towards a more participatory democracy sustained through the systematic engagement of a committed research community.
It is important to contrast this process with the standard means by which governments seek to engage with public opinion between elections through opinion polls or focus groups. As one of the most important scholars of deliberative democracy argued Focus groups, merely ask “..what we think when we don’t think..” But as we have seen Citizens’ assemblies include a strong ‘learning’, dimension. In which experts and stake holders not only make presentations but remain on hand throughout the process to answer questions as required. James Fishkin one of the most important scholars on deliberative democracy, famously asserts that the process as a whole is a way of discovering ‘what the public WOULD think had it a better opportunity to consider the question at issue. (Fishkin 1997:162)8. Or as Graham Smith argues it enables us to “bring the considered judgement of citizens into the political process” 9 and “recast the traditional relationship of power between citizens and experts […} to an extent we can understand mini publics as a mode of democratising expertise.” (Fishkin 2000) ”10.
After the initial phase comes the phase of discussion and deliberation in small groups. It is important to note that this is also part of the learning process as members are able test their assumptions through moderated discussion with experts and stake holders on hand to answer questions not as participants or authority figures. Deliberation is followed by decision which is arrived at by voting.
What is a public? And what arguments are made to legitimises the claim of an assembly to call itself a public? The short answer is ‘sortition’. Sortition is the method by which participants are recruited. Their legitimacy depend on its status as being a ‘public’. For this to be the case the selection of its members MUST be random (or near random). Any self selection or recruitment based on having an interest or being a stake holder of the subject under consideration would (as in the case of jury service) invalidate their status as being a member of the public. Random selection is essential as it is an important characteristic of a public that it CANNOT be reduced to an identifiable interest group. As a rule, a public must consist of more than known set of individuals. When it is revealed that behind a public there is merely a particular social or political grouping, its status as a public is challenged. Genuine mini-publics therefore depend on the selection being through a kind of stratified civic lottery that goes back to Athenian democracy.
Once members are recruited it is vital to create a level playing field between participants to ensure the more vocal or articulate members do not dominate. Ideally individuals are divided into small groups each with a trained facilitator. Diversity at each table is not left to chance. There are careful seating arrangements to avoid clustering, say, for example, young people choosing to sit together. Great efforts are made to ensure that everyone in the room can participate equally. In some ways like Occupy’s General Assemblies, various protocols have evolved to ensure that participants with different levels of language skills or education do not dominate. For example participants do not ask experts questions directly, which would risk that some individuals dominating proceedings, everyone writes down the questions they would like to ask and they are put to the experts by a facilitator.
Among scholars and relevant facilitating organisations to see the role as advisory, and some see it merely as a useful “laxative” for cases of extreme political constipation. In general they are thought to work best when provided with a clear task ideally linked to a decision making process that is well understood, ideally a referendum. It is the assemblies that have preceded referenda such as Irish abortion and gay marriage or electoral reform in British Columbia or Ontario or Constitutional change in Iceland that have done most to ‘change the weather’ regarding the view of the political class of their potential value as a way out of hyper partizan political deadlocks. It is also the lack of a democratic event is what provokes scepticism about how much impact the current UK assembly on reaching zero carbon. But there are alternative scenarios, for example the Polish democracy activist Marcin Gerwin 11 developed assemblies in close association with Polish mayors negotiating the agreements to implement decisions if 80% of assembly members agreed on a particular measure without any need to proceed to referenda.
Another scenario were the participatory budgeting model used for a number of years in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in which public assemblies were convened that directly involved citizens in setting priorities over local spending at the beginning of each spending round.
However impressive recent examples of assemblies have been they still largely remain one-off responses to problems to issues that have become ‘stuck’ in ways that established party political parliaments are unable to resolve. There has been little evidence that a more structural approach to a deeper integration of citizens’ assemblies is likely to emerge, that is until the arrival of the ‘Eupen model’
The Eupen Model
In 1989 the political theorist Robert Dahl proposed the following thought experiment “ Suppose an advanced country were to create a ‘minipopulous’ consisting of perhaps a thousand citizens randomly selected out of the entire demos. Its task would be to deliberate, for a year perhaps, on an issue and then to announce its choices…one mini populous could exist for every major issue on the agenda. A minipopulous could exist at any level of government-national state, or local. It could be attended… by an advisory committee or scholars and specialists and by an administrative staff. It could hold hearings, commission research and engage in debate and discussion…in these ways… the democratic process could be adapted once again to a world that little resembles the world in which democratic ideas and practices first came to life. (Dahl 1989: 340)12
Extraordinarly nearly fourty years later, in the small German speaking region of Ostbelgien, in Belgium, we are witnessing the arrival of something uncannily close to Dahl’s vision. In December 2019 Ostbelgien’s regional parliament has recruited its first cohort of citizens chosen not by election but by civic lottery to join elected MPs in shaping the region’s policy.
Although small in scale this is a historic moment as it is the first permanent citizens’ assembly in the world. The structure begins with a standing council of 24 citizens who meet monthly for 18 months. This standing council a kind of “meta assembly” oversees the selection of between 25 and 50 separate assemblies on selected topics as well as preparing briefing packs and identifying expert witnesses. (Prospect) 13. In one sense the so called “Eupen model” represents the culmination of experiments in participatory democracy that have been progressing under the radar of public awareness since the 1970s with a network of scholars and organisations refining and researching different models. However the increasingly toxic public sphere coupled with some high profile success stories has propelled experiments and expertise in participatory democracy into the spotlight.
The Participatory Masquerade
Between 1989 to 2016 in Porto Alegre – Brazil- a highly influential participatory budgeting model emerged in the form of an extended and successful series of public assemblies that directly involved citizens in the setting priorities over local spending at the beginning of each spending round. 14 In the early years this project made a significant impact, creating a more equitable distribution of key amenities as well as well as material improvements In health and education for the poorest communities. The success of the project was the expansion of the numbers of citizens willing to participate. However scaling the project up from local decision making to federal infrastructure proved difficult and in many ways the later years saw an unravelling and included a groundswell of opinion by more radical participants that they had in effect been de-mobilised and co-opted by the political elites.
Was this unravelling simply the standard organisational entropy that frequently accompanies the pressure of efforts to scale up ? Or does it signify the inevitability with which any engagement with institutional power has the effect of transforming insurgencies into incumbencies? Artist and theorist Dave Beech writing about participatory art in an article with the telling title ‘Include Me Out’15 argued that “participation sounds promising only until you imagine unpromising circumstances in which you might be asked to participate” [….] “Outsiders have to pay a higher price for their participation, namely, the neutralisation of their difference and the dampening of their powers of subversion. Participation papers over the cracks. The changes” concludes Beech “we need are structural”. This is strong attack if we are restricting ourselves to art projects operating in isolation but the argument here is that the strategic integration of participatory deliberations into our democratic arrangements can itself represent structural change. Under these conditions ‘include me in’.
Such a response to Beech’s critique however can only be plausibly sustained if we also heed the scholar Ricardo Blaug’s important distinction between ‘incumbent democracy” and ‘critical democracy’..”Incumbent democracy is primarily motivated to preserve and improve existing institutions by maximising and managing orderly participation. Critical democracy seeks, instead to resist such management and to empower excluded voices in such a way as to directly challenge existing institutions (Blaug 2002: 107).16
This is a vital dichotomy to hang on to as many examples of participatory projects do indeed appear far too bureaucratic and top down. But still as researcher Graham Smith wrote in response to Blaug’s critique “many of these innovations are designed precisely with these forms of empowerment in mind”.. and could yet have critical impact”.
Working With the Untraceable
A more subtle line of attack, argues that citizens’ assemblies by being locked into addressing *individual issues* citizens’ assemblies go too far on instrumentalizing politics, betraying the emancipatory passions at the heart of democracy that can only be assuaged through radical transformation of the system as a whole. To this charge the philosopher John Dewey’s might have argued that it would be absurd to imagine that “the political passions that are so revered by democrats can be isolated from the issues at stake in politics… For Dewey political passions are evoked by being implicated in an issue…” 17 It is this proposition that without issues there are no publics, that provides a way into the wider radical potential to the deliberative democracy movement.
This leads to the final and possibly most serious allegation which is that by ‘concretising’ the public these assemblies are guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of what a public actually is. In this analysis a public should not be mistaken for an identifiable community. The public envisaged here is an “apparition” that only comes into being once a problem or issue affecting a particular community spins out of the control and the reach of those initially effected. In this model it is above all *issues* that spark publics into being. And it is the uncertainty as to which of the many sparks which societal friction generates will ignite a public into being that gives the notion of the public its attributes of contingency, unpredictability and explosive agency. It is this peculiar evanescence that led Kierkegaard to characterise the public as a “phantom” a ghostly epiphenomenon, of early mass print media. 18 It was not until the early 20th century that Lippmann followed by Dewey adopted Kierkegaard’s concept of the “phantom public” but Lipmann and Dewey granted these publics a much greater degree of agency. It was however sociologist Noortje Marres who interprets the public’s phantom like attributes in less pejorative terms.
Marres argues that it is the very fact that the public as an “entity is *not* fully traceable” that gives it potency [….] It is precisely “when something starts circulating in the media, this brings along the possibility, and indeed the threat, of an open-ended set of actors stepping in to support this entity and make it strong.”… “ The fact that the public cannot be traced back to a limited set of identifiable sources is thus crucial to the effectiveness of the public: This is what endows it with a dangerous kind of agency”.. “The force of the public has to do with the impossibility of knowing its exact potential”. Marres goes on to conclude that we should “try to *work with* the threat of a partly untraceable potential of connections, and not try to dissipate it”. 18
Open Verification – Experimental Facts Meet Untraceable Publics
This is where we return to the resource of contemporary art and specifically the potential of Evidentiary Realism to reassert the link between progressive politics and a public knowledge. This movement spans the generations and includes the likes of Lawrence Abu Hansen, Wachter & Judt, Paolo Cirio, Imediengruppe Bitnik, Trevor Paglen, Lev Manovich, Moreshin Allahyar and Forensic Architecture. But as we have seen the potential of evidence based practices to transform public discourse are often challenged by the complexities of epistemic plurality when coupled with the dynamic untraceable nature of the ‘phantom public’.
However a number of these artists (notably Forensic Architecture) suggest an awareness of these issues by going beyond a *demonstration* of the value of the evidential turn through an aesthetic that effectively *dramatises* the struggle involved in making serious deliberative truth claims. At its best its best it is a movement that continually reminds us that in a world of fluctuating epistemic diversity, truth is never transparent, never straight forward, always difficult.
But the most obvious deficit in Evidentiary Realism’s general prospectus remains, that it leaves relatively untouched the role of public engagement and deliberation in the formation and resolution of issues. Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture has not been blind to these questions. In the speech entitled ‘Open Verification’ 19 Weizman given in June 2019, recounts how Forensic Architecture’s investigations are not only developed in public drawing freely from materials available in the public domain. Critically they also involve civic participation in a process involving a wide range of participant/witnesses and other vernacular sources. These sources range from amateur recorded materials gathered by citizens through to the assiduous and academically scrupulous collection and collation of witness statements. All of which attests to Forensic Architectures’s serious commitment to public engagement in arriving at truth claims on matters of public concern.
Notwithstanding Forensic Architecture’s impressive practices of open verification, the emphasis in *this* article is not on participatory data gathering but on the potential of collective public deliberation through assemblies. Involvement in this realm would mean looking beyond public engagement as part of data gathering and interpretation of state crime to the wider task the role of assemblies on the process of issue formation and resolution. It challenges this movement to apply their formidable data gathering, analytical, invention and imaging skills to the task of re-casting the art and the act of assembly itself. Such a pivot would obviously involve the difficult sacrifice of *de-dramatising* evidentiary practice. It would mean going beyond faith that exposure of state crime will ever lead to change. It will mean lifting our eyes above the battle field and dispensing with the last vestiges of the old journalistic adage “if it bleeds it leads”.
The goal of this article Is to provide additional knowledge and intellectual ballast to support the act of lifting our sites above the “fog of war” and attending to the more ambitious horizon of re-imagining the art and the act of assembly. With is in mind we turn to the second great movement of contemporary post-studio arts practice, the Participatory or Dialogic arts. The point here is to embark on a curatorial thought experiment to design supportive environments for both Evidentiary Realism and the Participatory arts, to work together or in generative proximity.
In her influential book, Artificial Hells (2012), Claire Bishop explores the ‘participatory aesthetic’ sometimes referred to as the social turn, the well known notion of the audience (or spectator) who displaces the participant who then becomes a structural and material part of the work of art itself. These practices have existed in various iterations for generations but emerged renewed in the 1990s dragged forward in the twin slipstreams of the mass adoption of the internet and the publication of Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Relatonal Aesthetics’. The intense debates generated by the
introduction of Bourriaud’s socio/aesthetic grammar helped to legitimise participatory practice propelling this movement from margins of the art world into a powerful and respected genre in its own right. And a recent generation of artists such as Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Jeanne van Heeswijk – Jonas Staal – Camp – Hagit Keysar – Cai Guo-Qiang – Francis Kéré – offer important possibilities in the design supportive environments for engagement and the intensification of social dialogue.
But strangely the media arts (to which evidential realism can be seen as a subcategory) have never, with, some exceptions, made a similar transition to general acceptance within the art world. We see this bias at play in the first pages of the introduction to Artificial Hells’ where Bishop explicitly excludes digital media and indeed all: “transdisciplinary, research-based or interventionist art” 19 from consideration. Indeed in a book about cultural participation it is astonishing that the word ‘internet’ is never mentioned. Not once! Reading this book, one can only marvel at the boldness of this exclusionary matrix whose composition constitutes the very definition of Evidentiary Realism and much much more besides.
However much we might disagree with Bishop’s approach (which I do elsewhere) 20 she has nevertheless performed a very important service by articulating in usefully stark terms the attributes separating these two movements. In so doing she both highlights the distinctive identity of these discourses along with the absurdity of keeping them apart. What we have identified here is the opportunity for establishing a fresh curatorial landing zone. An experimental space where these two heterogeneous movements might work with ‘proxy-publics’ on a ‘high wire’ with an “airy relation to the ground” of the mundane but vital political reality of real world decision making.
David Garcia July 2020
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13 Glaser. E. 2019. Belgium’s Experiment in a New Kind of Democracy. Prospect. Available here : https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/belgiums-experiment-in-a-new-kind-of-democracy
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15. Beech. D 2008. Include me Out. Art Monthly 315. Available at: https://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/article/include-me-out-by-dave-beech-april-2008
16. Blaug, R. 2002. Engineering Democracy (105-6)
17. Marres N. 2006 Public (Im)potence. Hybrid space available here: https://onlineopen.org/public-im-potence
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19. Weizman E. 2019 Open Verification e-Flux. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/becoming-digital/248062/open-verification/
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20. Garcia. D. 2015. Claire Bishop’s Game. New-Tactical-Research. Available at: http://new-tactical-research.co.uk/blog/claire-bishops-game/
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