GET INVOLVED! Strategies of Participation in Contemporay Art

By Max Glauner

Participation must be seen as an artistic strategy in the post-war and contemparary art. We intend to determine its modes of interaction, cooperation and collaboration, and emphasize the basal form of experience in art as a beeing in the middle and apart drawing the line between the aesthetical, the spectacle and the religious sphere.

© Christian Falsnaes

„How not to sink into participation?“ Emanuel Lèvinas, 1957


Participation, from Latin for partake, sharing, can be described without digression as the core slogan of our neoliberal world. Their call „Join in! Be a part of it“ goes from everywhere. „Get involved! Be part of it!“, the request sounds to the contemporary meanwhile from almost every website and app. It pervades all areas of society, from politics and the economy to the entertainment industry and the cultural sector.(1)

Who are the agents of this ubiquitous call for participation? The suspicion that two movements are intertwining here arises for the awake contemporary: On the one hand, the reputation compensates and obscures the historically grown inability of the post-modern human being to empathise and deepen relationships. On the other hand, the slogan „Get involved! – This is precisely why it is so successful – the existential emptying that it pretends to eliminate and therefore constantly invents new offers of compensation, i.e. participation.

An essential reason for this can be traced in the history of ideas: Participation is inherently pseudonymous. In philosophy it does not initially belong to the capital topics. With Plato, it operates as „Methexis“, which determines the derivative relationship between the image, the changing appearance of a thing in this world, and its perpetual archetype, its perfect, yet transcendent idea.(2) Methexis thus marks a deficiency relationship from the very beginning of Western thought. The appearing has a part in the idea, but only in part. It remains dependent, needy, man a subjectum, a subject.(3)

The Judeo-Christian theology treats participation as participation in the divine creation or the Christian history of salvation, whereby the relationship from above to below, transcendence and human existence is renegotiated. After the expulsion from paradise, the apostate and the punished nevertheless have a share in his creation, over which the pleasing God commands those living according to the laws of God. His covenant, his possibility of participation, is renewed above all in faith and the observance of the sacraments.(4)

No wonder, therefore, that with the advent of modernity and the Reformation movements, the discovery of individuality and self-determination of man, not only the binding power of the sacrament in the Lord’s Supper, but also ritual and participatory moments in the practice of religion thin out and disappear. Society is becoming poorer in visible participatory offerings. With the general literacy for the Bible circle, the pietistic strategy under Luther’s slogan „sola scriptura“ people become readers to whom new worlds open up. But despite the Bible circle they remain lonely and alone in their reading.(5)

The loss of participation in modernity seems to have been offset by mass consumption and mass media and finally by Web 2.0. The parishioner, the user, enters the „community“ via „clicks“ and „likes“, makes tweets, blogs, pics and videos available for download or surfs with his avatar in interactive fiction worlds. He is constantly available to his homies, friends and connections via social networks and takes part in their digital charades. He (or she) forgets that he or she leaves the choice of partner to an algorithm where he or she has long since passed on his or her location data to the provider, the bank and the NSA round the clock via GPS or RFID tags.(6)

To this end, the neoliberal economic system has inventively provided countless digital and analog participation models. They shape and control social developments, trends, fashion and art trends even before they become aware of themselves. From production and distribution to advertising, from works councils to shareholder meetings, the magic word for new productivity is participation, participation, spectacle. Alienation and manipulation do not therefore threaten today, as the situationist Guy Debord and, more differentiatedly, Theodor W. Adorno wanted us to believe, through entertaining media that push the recipient into a passively consuming role.(7) Rather, the opposite is the case. Today’s requirement profile demands the flexibility to be present everywhere – right in the middle, whether in leisure time or at work: „Get the app! Improve your profile – do and buy the right things!“(8)


And what does art do? Where it does not promote the prevailing conditions, it apparently falls hopelessly behind. But doesn’t it also have a large number of participatory designs under the labels Dialogic Art, Commuity Art, Socially and Politically-Engaged Art, from activism to activism, that resist and counteract this emptying? There is no doubt about it. It can be seen as a good sign that they are not easy to categorize and also that there is little agreement on what participation in art is and what task and scope it has.

At the end of the 1990s, the concept of participation was treated as a magic word in the art world following the concept of „Relational Art“ by curator Nicolas Bourriaud.(9) Today, it is highly controversial. While some are struggling to redefine it in theory and practice, others see a hell of a door open.(10)

As early as the protest and democratization movements of the 1960s, art, like theatre, developed a series of formats, participation and co-creation that put audience participation on the agenda. Participation was synonymous with emancipation. By John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Valie Export and Marina Abramović, the Living Theatre or the Wooster Group emphasizing the performance character of art and renegotiating the relationship between artwork, artist and recipient, the gallery, museum or theatre visitor was given a new role in which he saw himself again as an active, self-thinking collaborator in the sense of the Brechtian model.(11)

Participative strategies have now become an indispensable part of the art field. In the mid-1990s, with the emergence of digital media and the first wave of Internet euphoria with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Francis Alÿs, Andrea Fraser, Christoph Schlingensief, Gob Squad, and Rimini Protokoll, participatory strategies, cooperation, and community building have once again become high on the agenda.

As expected, the new participatory offerings have now been secondary to a large number of texts. Nevertheless, no discourse emerged that allowed a sustainable-critical approach to the phenomenon of participation. An aesthetic, let alone a theory of participation, has not yet been written, despite well-intentioned approaches. Whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world in recent years, mainly small-scale sociological work in the field of net culture has been presented,(13) the constitution of a research group at the University of Konstanz last summer is symptomatic of the German-speaking world. It claims to have taken a series of institutionally different approaches under the title „Mediale Teilhabe. Participation between claim and claim“ Need for action for knowledge production on a broad front. However, art and performance practice play only a marginal role in the research set. Otherwise, the already ambitious project would probably have gone off the rails.(14) In 2015, for example, a Berlin publishing house also finally pulled out the publication of a dissertation entitled „Zwischen Spiel und Politik. Participation as Strategy and Practice in the Visual Arts“.(15) But whatever the reasons may have been for the withdrawal, Silke Feldhoff’s theoretical approach, from which four „types of participation“ are established, is not really convincing, and it cannot do justice to the claim of offering an encyclopaedic overview of the German-speaking landscape. Not only does it have to ignore the fact that participatory art can only be described as a transnational phenomenon even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that after 1989 it can be regarded as the first global art phenomenon alongside the new media, it also has to ignore the fact that gaps quickly become visible in its impressive composition.

Larger theoretical drafts of the 2000s, such as Erika Fischer-Lichte’s „Aesthetics of the Performative“ (Frankfurt a.M. 2004) or Juliane Rebentisch’s „Aesthetics of the Installation“ (Frankfurt a.M. 2005), did not place participation in art directly at the centre of their reception-theoretical considerations.

The theme is a hot potato. This is also due to the fact that over the past two decades two hostile camps of theory formation have crystallized, while practice has continued to produce lively.

On the one hand, there is the conservative camp that locates the power of art precisely in the singularity and autonomy of the artistically designed event. It first associates participation with „participatory theatre“, „citizen stages“ and social work, and in participatory art actions it waves its nose at the remark that „you have to take off your shoes“. This camp means, when there is positive talk of participation, participation as an extended reception. Accordingly, every apperception is an active reception and thus participation in the work of art or the performance, whether it is a sonata movement by Beethoven or a sound installation by Peter Ablinger.(16)

On the other hand, there is the actionist camp, which wants to use art as an effective weapon against the failures of the world. It likes to mock those who don’t take off their shoes and prefer to remain spectators. Participation is only given when the viewer is directly and immediately physically involved, leaves his position and becomes an active participant in art production or performance, receives a voice and the right to object. Ultimately, the sphere of art is left here. It merely serves as an instrument for activating a new, critical community of political actors such as the artist and curator Artur Żmijewski or recently Philipp Ruch of the Center for Political Beauty has in mind (17) .

What is remarkable here is the fact that both camps like to refer to two guarantors, the French philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Jaques Rancière, albeit in different readings. Even if, or precisely because, both have never emerged with an explicitly elaborated aesthetic, writings such as Nancy’s „La communauté désœuvrée“ (Paris 1986) or Rancière’s „Le spectateur émancipé“ (Paris 2008) determine the discourse. Depending on whether one wants to see the work of art or the community constituted by it established, their writings are used above all where they deal with a „we“ in the „co-division“ and the inextricable separation it expresses as the only connecting factor. A dialectical dissolution or fusion of subject-object can no longer be thought of here, but in the best case this frees the way to describe and understand the complex relational determinations and processes of participatory art. Only the New York art critic Claire Bishop, who presented a collection of theoretical and practical texts in 2006 and a study on the subject in 2012, has achieved a comparable degree of discourse sovereignty in recent years. She opens up a broad historical-critical panorama from the beginnings of the 20th century to the present day, but, supported by the conviction that participatory art is an essential motor for changing society, she largely dispenses with a theoretical-philosophical deepening.(18)

A satisfactory interpretation of the concept of participation has so far failed to materialize in art studies. Criteria and concepts are still missing from the discourse when it comes, for example, to placing the actions of the Center for Political Beauty in a relationship to Christoph Schlingensief’s actionism.(19) What have Christoph Büchel’s collaborative installation „The Mosque“ during the 56th Venice Biennale 2015 or the interactive settings of the media group Blast Theory artistically ahead of colorfully flickering screens controlled by the movements of trade fair visitors? And why does a robotic suite performance by the artist duo Demers and Vorn, which makes the user equipped with an exo-skeleton flicker to techno beats in stroboscopic light, seem so terribly unnecessary and empty, while Jordan Wolfson’s „(Female Figure) 2014“ (2014), a digitally controlled gogo girl automaton, doesn’t let go of its audience so quickly? Art critics have found few satisfactory answers to these questions.(20)

Participation, the call to „join in“, works in most cases without criticism, as the British artist David Shrigley demonstrated in a simple experimental set-up at Art Basel 2015. His simple „The Model“, equipped with paper, pencil and easel, could be pinned to the wall of the bunks by the visitors. There were few who withdrew from the offer. Thus everyone who wanted to became an actor and part of the big art business, which one would otherwise only be excluded from as an observer. But just as the Dilettantengalerie could hardly be classified as aesthetically valuable, Shrigley’s work did not go beyond the polemical fair gag that counteracted participation as a bland phase-out model. Skepticism toward the cheap offers of participation is therefore appropriate. (21)


Most people might remember that embaressing situation in childhood when, in the middle of the fairytale performance, it was said: „All children on stage!“ While some had long been anxious to play a little deer or a little tree, others felt irritated, shamefaced and disappointed, deprived of the illusion and the theatrical experience. This participative primal scene repeats itself. At communion, in the disco, where some dance for hours while others prefer to stand at the bar, at carnival and company parties. In both cases, the observer could judge that those who take part are there, right in the middle, the others outside and apart. That this is not the case, but that inclusion is also possible and given in exclusion, is now taught not only by Jacques Nancy’s philosophy, but also by his own experience. This experience evokes and formats participatory art in a „being in the middle and apart“.(22)

This existential philosophical twist, the „Outside in the Inside,“ marks the border between art, religion, and spectacle. The latter lack the „outside“ in the „midst“. They are highly participative, one thinks of Facebook meetings, Catholic pilgrimages to Mary, or the experience worlds of a hadj with stoning of the devil before one circles the Kaaba in the masses.

At the Marrakesh Biennale 2014, the French artist Saâdane Afif impressively demonstrated how art can create an outside world from the midst of it, from the promise of participation, contradiction and critical sympathy by undermining the superficial impulse to participate. During the opening week, a young man in front of an Art Deco building of the former central bank, which now served as an exhibition house, carried a small table and a flipchart to sunset on the famous market square Djemaa el Fna, where night after night culinary and circus delicacies are offered to locals and the growing number of tourists. As soon as the performer, a local student of engineering, had put his utensils on the table, geometric figures, small white balls, cubes, pyramids and hand-painted cardboard signs advertising „souvenirs“ at a small price, the first curious people gathered around the young man. After a brief look around and with his pen drawn, he took the floor without hesitation and, supported by his sketches and formulas, began to lecture in Arabic on the challenges of representational geometry. In a few minutes, a large circle of listeners had gathered around the speaker, local women, children, men, some tourists. They came and went; a hard core expert remained for discussion. After three quarters of an hour they went to the sale. One could now acquire works of art. They reminded us of the art of mathematics. The Arab culture had brought them to climaxes. They were beautifully polished wooden blocks in plastic bags, applied geometry to carry home, made by local craftsmen and certified as part of the artwork „Souvenir: Part 1. La leçon de géométrie“. Throughout the day, the table and table stood in the bank’s Biennale exhibition, the white turrets in a second version elevated as an art object in a showcase in another exhibition location, the regional museum Dar Si Said.

The description of „Souvenir: Part 1“ alone gives an idea of how different participatory offers were established and crossed in the performance. Whether local, tourist or biennial visitor, everyone was invited to participate as observer, spectator, listener, discussant or buyer. But none of the possible postures were integrated into the playground. The question of participation and community itself was thus put up for discussion and renegotiable. Part of a community, everyone was thrown back on himself in the withdrawal of participation. The action enabled every visitor, no matter how distant, to participate in the Biennale and the Biennale audience to participate in local events. The renunciation of a pedagogical offer on the one hand corresponded to the renunciation of folkloristic tam-tam on the other. Despite all intimacy and community, everyone was confronted with a piece of incomprehension and strangeness that, in the best case scenario, invited them to reflect on their own states of mind and attitudes in the experience of this „in and out“.


More contoured than in Saâdane Afif’s performance is the „in the middle and apart“ of recent installation works. They thematize the relationship between interior and exterior spaces and bring the visitor into situations in which he enters a reenactment in the position of a performer.

A work by the artist collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik around Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf offers a suitable introduction. Their way of working is described on the website: „Using hacking as an artistic strategy, their works re-contextualise the familiar to allow for new readings of established structures and mechanisms „(23) The installation „Delivery to Mr. Assange“ at the Helmhaus 2014 (24) in Zurich was not directly related to the skill of re-programming or de-programming, but it provided insight into the hacker millieu – specifically into the current living conditions of Wikileak founder Daniel Assange. The work did not count on the user on the screen, but on an audience as participant as „visitor“ and „guest“ on site, while in the first room the documentation of a camera parcel post to Assange „DELIVERY FOR MR. ASSANGE. A LIVE MAIL ART PIECE“, they had reconstructed the living room of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in the hall next door with plasterboard visible from the outside. Everyone was able to enter the room via a sluice, could get a picture of the isolated person of public life, who was obviously well connected via the net, between bookshelves, chairs and a desk, a home trainer and a laptop with archive material and records. How did this room get to Zurich? A notice on the room informed the visitor that during Smoljo and Weisskopf’s stay near Assange in London, no photos or other documentation could be produced. Thus, with Assange’s consent, the two made memory records after their stay, after which the room was reconstructed for the exhibition – including book titles and curtains. What was decisive, however, was that the viewer in this situation went into the London embassy himself, into the position, in the role of the guest, and thus gained a very private insight into the otherwise hidden circumstances. The extent to which the environment coincided with reality was of secondary importance, since it was precisely the awareness of difference, the awareness of appearance, that served as a catalyst for one’s own imagination, which briefly met with that of the producers. The installation thus created a mind-set that was connected with a feeling of shame, guilt, and curiosity. Here, too, an outside that sets the power of imagination in motion and puts attitudes to questions such as public and private, freedom and control at the disposal is established in the midst of it all.

This practice makes use of the reconstructive reenactment or participative reconstruction of an early 13th-century device, probably without being aware of it: the narrative of the Loreto miracle or the architecture of the Santa Casa di Loreto not far from the Italian Adriatic coast south of Ravenna.

In the monumental interior of the Basilica of Loreto, the most important pilgrimage destination in Italy after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, there is a huge, elaborately decorated shrine-like building in the crossing. Inside, the House of Mary, the place of her birth and the Annunciation, is shown as the Blessed Sacrament. According to legend, it was carried from its original location in Palestine to Loreto by angels. Interestingly, as in the case of Assange’s room, the exterior of the house is not preserved, but completely covered by the shrine. Through two entrances on the long sides, the pilgrim enters a small room, closed at the top by a barrel vault, with a Baroque altar on the eastern front, on which a Virgin Mary is placed as a devotional figure. The believer may now be assured of the protection and grace of the higher powers at a decisive place of the salvation event, this partially. In the architectural presence the real presence of the Mother of God as mediator of all graces and intercessor with Jesus Christ is repeated.

The parallels are clear: in both cases it is a reconstruction of space that is connected with a narrative of translocation – with !Mediengruppe Bitnik, the story with the package. And also the connection with higher, but in any case invisible powers, here God, there the WWW form constitutive moments. A decisive difference arises in the form of participation: For the believer, the brick walls are actually the walls of the Marienhaus, in which the event of salvation took place. There is no doubt in his mind, he is right in the middle of it, he has no outside. The elaborately designed shrine is first of all a triumphal sign for him, announcing the power and glory of the saints, while its sparse interior invites him to devotion and inner contemplation and penance. Certainly – shame before the miserable narrowness of the Assange room, was also attested to the visitor of the installation of the !media group Bitnik. But he will hardly remain in an adorable position in front of computers and USB cables. He is indeed „inside“, he deals with the installation and perhaps also with the existence of Assange. But the guest has always been outside, too. With Assange, he will only conditionally connect a divine plan of salvation to save the world and instead puts himself and his life-worldly background into relation.

The Hamburg artist, filmmaker and media theorist Lutz Dammbeck gives another example of architectural re-enactment with his installation „Cabin“ from 2003, which is shown again and again. Here, too, the visitor, viewer, feels insecure, but at the same time an uncanny attraction and repulsion through its theme. Two years before the FBI released the original hut, „Ted“, Theodor Kaczynski’s, the so-called Unabomber from the evidence reserves for a public exhibition, the Hamburg artist reconstructed it true to the original. In contrast to the two previous examples, it is not possible for the viewer to enter the building. But he was able to see through a window and observation slits. So the visitor was also a guest – but like Hansel and Gretel in front of the witch’s house, he was caught doing something perhaps forbidden. Looking into the hut of a serial killer, one succumbed to the fascination of evil, in which one had a part the longer one occupied oneself with this dwelling. Here, too, participation lay in a process of reflection that was set in motion by the artwork and its relationship to our reality. Dammbeck does not give any instructions on how to play. We leave it to ourselves to design our narrative, our attitude. The film and the book Dammbeck’s „The Net“ spins Ted Kaczynski’s story further, shows connections between the Luddistic world-conspiratorial delusions of the Unabomber and prophets of salvation at the beginning of the digital era of the Internet.(25) There is a multitude of comparable installative reenactments. One need only recall Mathilde ter Heijne’s „The Reconstruction of the House of the Qiao Zi Family“ (2008), Milo Rau’s „Hate Radio“ (2011) or Franz Reimer’s „The Situation Room“ (2013/2014), an installation that enables visitors to take up the position of Osama Bin Laden’s execution actors in the White House. What they all have in common is that, in the translocation of hagiographically charged spaces, they dispose of a „midst-and-outside“ and experience it.


The formula „in the middle and external“ designates an internal structure of participative art and its experience. What it does not achieve, however, is a differentiation of participatory formats that asks what position the audience has as an actor in relation to the artist, in other words, what productive role they are accorded in the creation of the work or performance. The answers and offers from the theory usually go too far. Therefore, in this last section, three modes of participation – interaction, cooperation, collaboration – will be developed and put up for discussion.(26)

Aesthetics traditionally distinguishes three aspects of a work of art or a theatre performance. On the one hand, it asks about the artist. What does he need, what does he bring with him to produce a work of art? This concerns the so-called production aesthetics. Second, it asks for the audience. This concerns the question of how something is perceived, read, seen, heard – the reception aesthetic side of art observation. What remains is the performance or work aesthetic, which asks how a work of art is structured. What structure, rhetoric does it have, in what historical context does it stand, and what does it point beyond itself?of art observation relate to the concept of participation? Since he grants the audience a creative share in the emergence of the art event, he also overrides the categories of reception, work, production. If a strong concept of participation negates both the role of the recipient and that of the producer as well as the traditional concept of the work, it can be assumed that formal modes of participation can be found in the three positions mentioned. Schematically, the consideration can be presented as follows:

Three Modes of Participation

© Max Glauner

First: Participation in the position of the artist producer would then be defined as co-determination or collaboration. In contrast to a classical collaboration of artists like Dieter Roth and Arnulf Rainer, Elmgreen and Dragset, or artist collectives like Inges Idee and Superflex, actors are involved who are not directly concerned with the creative context of the initiator. Everyone has an equal influence on the process and the result. The starting point and framework conditions can be negotiated and redefined by all participants at any time.

Secondly, participation appears instead of the artwork as participation, participation and cooperation, whereby the emergence and form of the collaboration are largely determined and controlled by the artist. Just as in collaborations, the course and result of the production process are usually open and do not have to be predetermined.

Third, participation in the position of the observer or spectator is found as participation and interaction. The interaction concerns, as already described in the third section, an open work of art that invites and challenges „active“ participation. The interactive participation allows a change of the media setting only within a given framework such as shouting in the theatre or activating certain algorithms. Furthermore, it can be characterized as the reflected reproduction of the creation of the work of art or the performance and thus the critical reflection on the possibility of participation set into the work at all.

In every position of classical aesthetics, participation preserves moments of negated concepts – it is always creative action and critical reflection of the same. It therefore seems irrelevant whether the scope of participation is to be limited to actively acting interventions – i.e. physical presence and trace – as in the case of Lars Blunck,27 or, more widely, reflection on possible scope for action, which is opened up by an artistic display, as suggested by a majority of theoretical works on participation.28 From this perspective, the „activity“ of each „participant“ on all levels is not decided by whether he takes a hammer in his hand and builds a hut, of which nobody knows what it will look like in the end, or whether he takes part in a demonstration in front of the Federal Chancellery; – decisive remains his participation in an artistic process, the „awareness“ for a released process, whether it is exclusively interactive, cooperative or collaborative.

This is also important in the sense that, due to their performance character, participative works of art become less frequently accessible in their creation and only subsequently in an institutional presentation of whatever kind, which is only able to rudimentarily revoke the participative moment. An overwhelming number of participative works in contemporary art are interactive, such as Eva Hesse’s Specific Object „Accession“ 1967/68, installations by Carsten Höller and Tania Bruguera, or the Canadian Pavilion at the past Venice Biennale; cooperative, on the other hand, works by Stephen Willats, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra, and Yael Bartana, or the „Joint Ventures“ announced for the upcoming Manifesta 11. The actions of the young Italian artist Marinella Senatore, films by Eva Könnemann or the urbanist interventions of the Hamburg collective Park Fiction can be characterized as collaborative.29

But there are also works in which all three modes appear, merge into one another or overlap one another. This often happens in the theatre. In any case, an art form whose production unfolds a complex interplay from interaction to collaboration, from direction to stage design to actor, the theatre succeeds in transferring this creative energy into the stage or into public space in exceptional productions, as in Christoph Schlingensief’s „Chance 2000“ (1998), „Ausländer raus!“. (2004), or Jonathan Meese’s „De Frau“ at the Volksbühne Berlin (2007) – which, at the end of many performances, engaged in a ludicrous collaborative renegotiation of the power structure between artist, actor Bernhard Schütz and the audience. Even the cemented production conditions of the visual arts make it difficult for her to create comparably dense participative moments. She rarely goes beyond interactive offerings.


„The Mosque“ by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, a project that was scheduled as Iceland’s official country contribution to the last Venice Biennale, is therefore an exceptional example.(30) More than almost any other work in recent years, interactive, cooperative and collaborative moments were at work here. Büchel’s project envisaged the opening of the first Islamic house of prayer in the Serenissima. Although more than 3,000 Muslims of different origins now live and work in the historical centre, about 5% of the total population, they have not been given a room for assembly and religious practice despite the efforts of their associations. For this they have to travel to the mainland.

In fact, „The Mosque“ was inaugurated during the opening week of the Biennale on 8 May. For this purpose, the artist had the interior of the monastery church Santa Maria della Misericordia in the district Cannaregio, which had been unused and desecrated for a long time, carefully redesigned: The pews had made room for a prayer rug. A Mihrāb, the prayer niche protruded from the east wall, next to it stood the minbar, the pulpit and deep into the room hung an octagonal chandelier. Even the circular cartouches with Koran slogans in the blown up gables of the altars harmoniously blend into the historical architecture, as if they had always been placed there. While in the anteroom not only shelves were provided for the shoes and vending machines donated water and Mecca coke, the shop in the side chapel offered devotional objects and all sorts of useful items for mental and physical well-being. And also for the Wuḍūʾ, the prayer wash, was provided. Büchel installed large metal basins with running water in the former sacristy.

The participation on the interactive level showed Büchel’s work in the whole spectrum on the day of the vernissage: The opening guests of the Biennale and Islamic communities mixed colourfully, among them also those of the tiny Icelanders, random passers-by and curious people, who could experience an exuberant and cheerful hustle and bustle here. A Maghrebian group of musicians played, children romped around. Some prayed while others just admired the beautiful room or discussed Islam in the shop or bought a souvenir. Büchel had succeeded, even if only for a short time, in creating an unobtrusive place for cultural encounters.

The Venetian authorities closed the Icelandic Pavilion just two weeks after the opening. No permission to reopen the pavilion was granted until the end of the Biennale. The decision involuntarily exposed the clandestine participatory moments of the project, which in the differentiation of cooperation and collaboration allowed processes and actors to emerge symbolically powerful.

The communicative and organisational effort of „The Mosque“ is not publicly documented, but can be classified as considerable. Christoph Büchel, with the support of the Icelandic Art Institute (IAC), was able, after the Marienkirche had been found to be a suitable location, to win over a large number of local authorities and church authorities to the project against considerable resistance, in order to obtain permits and have construction approvals carried out. On this cooperative level, Büchel set the direction, also when it came to carrying out the interior work with the participation of local craftsmen. The IAC, the authorities, church representatives, the various trades and, last but not least, the Biennale management thus provided the actors at the cooperative level.

On the collaboration level, however, there are the Venetian Islamic communities, to which, it may be assumed, the 800-strong community of Icelandic Muslims has opened the doors for the project. In this setting the artist had at best a moderating, not a controlling role. Rather, he subjected his artistic concept to a demand that had been loud for years. Büchel thus aligned the concept with the needs of the communities and designed the aesthetic programme according to their ideas and the architectural requirements of a Muslim prayer house. With this collaborative aspect, however, conflict with the cooperative side was inevitable. The authorities had approved an art event, but not a mosque. But where devotion to art and worship is already difficult to distinguish, no one could prevent the prayer room from being used for prayer. As part of a participatory cluster, some enjoyed the beautiful room while others leaned their heads towards Mecca. But just as the early closure can be read as the symbol of the failed cooperation, the prayer in the house of God stands for a successful collaboration. It points beyond art to the possibility of a successful existence together.


1 _The cultural message adopted by the Swiss parliament in 2014 is symptomatic of this. For the years 2016-2020, it stipulates „participation“ as a core objective of the Confederation’s cultural policy; see on implementation Federal Office of Culture (FOC);; for the topicality of the concept of participation, the study, Participation in Transition. Our democracy between voting, participating and deciding, Bertelsmann Stiftung (ed.) Gütersloh 2014; Mark Terkessidis, Kollaboration, Berlin 2015; Claus Leggewie, Patrizia Nanz, Die Konsultative. More Democracy through Citizen Participation, Berlin 2016.

2_ See Kupke in this volume; Rolf Schönberger: Teilhabe. in: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy, Volume 10, Basel 1998, Sp. 961-969.

3_Thus the Greek-Roman societies appear differentiated in their forms of organization and participation, the individual remained dependent on the Moira, the Fatum, the Council of Gods, cf. Jacob Burckhardt, Griechische Kulturgeschichte, vol. 1-4, München 21982.

4_ Gesine Schwan, Participation, in: Christian Faith in Modern Society, Volume 11, Franz Böckle, Franz-Xaver Kaufmann, Freiburg/Basel/Vienna 1981, pp. 41-78, gives an overview of the concept of political participation from a philosophical-theological point of view.

5_ See in this volume Asendorf, which deals with the counter-movement to the loss of participation and Rolf Engelsing, Der Bürger als Leser. Readers history in Germany 1500-1800, Stuttgart 1974.

6_  The Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt 2010: „We know where you are. We know where you were. We can know more or less what you’re thinking right now.“ Quoted after Robert M. Maier, Angst vor Google, FAZ, 3.4.2014.

7_ Guy Debord, Die Gesellschaft des Spektakels (1967), Berlin 1996; Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt a.M. 1978.

8_ The anthology „Technologischer Totalitarismus. Eine Debatte“, Frank Schirrmacher (ed.), Berlin 2015.

9_ Nicolas Bourriauds, Esthétique relationelle, Paris, 1998 became formative for the affirmative assessment of participation under the banner of a „Relational Art“.

10_ The sceptics of participation can be found, for example, in Diedrich Diederichsen, references to reality in the fine arts. Subject Critique, Critique of Representation and Extras Art, in: Dirck Linck, Michael Lüthy, Brigitte Obermayer, Martin Vöhler (Ed.), Realism in the Arts of the Present, Berlin 2010, pp. 13-28 and Markus Miessen, Nightmare of Participation (Berlin/New York 2010), Berlin 2012.

11_On participation in the neo-avantgardes, see Sanio in this volume and the catalogue exhibition „Out of actions. Actionism, Body Art & Performance 1949-1979“ MAK, 17.6.1998-6.1.1999, Ostfildern 1998.

12_ On the authentication of the cultural sector, see Daniel Kurjaković, Participation as a Rhetorical Effect, in: Paradoxes of Participation. Magazine of the Institute for Theory of the Zurich University of the Arts, vol. 31, no. 10/11, December 2007, pp. 85-90.

13_ Cf. for example: J. Earl, K. Kimport, Digitally enabled social change: Activisms in the internet age, Cambridge, MA, 2011; Nico Carpentier, The concept of participation. If they have access and interact, do they really participate? in: Environment and Planning, D: Society and Space 32(1) 2014, p.30-48; Jay Koh, Art-Led Participative Processes. Dialogue and Subjectivity Within Performances in the Everyday, Helsinki 2015; Christopher Kelty, Aron Panofsky, Seven Dimensions of Contemporary Participation Disentangeled, in: Journal oft he Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(3), March 2015, p.474-488.

14_ The author was able to present the theses outlined here at the Summer School of the research group Medial Participation 2015 at the University of Konstanz; with thanks to Beate Ochsner, Isabel Otto, Elke Bippus and Thomas Alkemeyer; FGMT,

15_ Silke Feldhoff’s dissertation is available at https://opus4 (1.3.2016).

16_ Michael Fried can be regarded as the progenitor of this position; cf. ders. Art and Objecthood (1967), German art and objecthood, in: Gregor Stemmrich (ed.), Minimal Art: Eine Kritische Retrospektive, Dresden 1998, p.334-374The media theorist Lev Manović already expressed himself polemically in 1996: „All classical art and all the more modern art was already ‚interactive‘, since it required a spectator who replaced missing information (…) and had to move his eyes (…) or his whole body (…). Interactive computer art understands ‚interactively‘ literally by equating it, at the expense of psychological interaction, with a purely physical interaction between a user and a work of art (pressing a button)“. Ders., On Totalitarian Interactivity. Observations from the enemies of the people, in: Telepolis. Die Zeitschrift der Netzkultur, Nr. 1 1997, p.123-127. Reception as Participation e.g. by Melitta Kliege, Funktionen des Betrachters : Modelle der Teilnahme bei Joseph Beuys und Antoni Tàpies, Munich 1999, and Alexander García Düttmann, Teilnahme. Consciousness of appearance, Konstanz 2011, and Juliane Rebentisch, Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung, Hamburg 2013, pp. 58-91.

17_ Apart from futuristic concepts of classical modernism and the neo-avant-garde, Nicolas Bourriaud stands here a.a.O. Patron, for example for Timon Beyes, (ed.), Parcitypate: art and urban space, Sulgen 2009, Regula Valérie Burri, Kerstin Evert, Sibylle Peters, Esther Pilkington, Gesa Ziemer, (ed.) Versammlung und Teilhabe. Urban Public Spheres and Performative Arts, Bielefeld 2014.

18_ See Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation. Documents of Contemporary Art, London/Cambidge, MA 2006, this, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London/New York 2012.

19_ A good approach to this with Wolfgang Müller, Moral Purity? Zentrum für politische Schönheit and Christoph Schlingensief, in: Berliner Gazette, 10.08.2015, (4.3.2015).

20_ Jörg Heiser’s successful essay on Tino Sehgal addresses the ambivalence of participatory offers: gegenüber_is_joerg_heiser_on _tino_sehgal/(1.3.2016).

21_ According to Boris Groys, the concept of participation for all is excellently fulfilled in the destruction. The deliberate destruction of ancient sites in the Syrian civil war would thus be less of iconoclastic origin than a retrograde participation demonstration of modernity. See Claire Bishop, ders., Bring the noise. Interview on Futurism for Tate etc. Online, 2009 (1.3.2016).

22_ The figure of „Mittendrin-und-draußen“ specifies the relationship of tension in participatory formats of contemporary art, as expressed by Juliane Rebentisch (2013): „To make an aesthetic experience now means (…) to encounter the worlds of experience known in everyday life anew in the mode of a reflexive distance“ a.o.c., p.80. See also the author, „Talk to me“. Modi der Teilnahme bei Georg Klein, in: Sabine Sanio, (Ed.), Georg Klein. Borderlines, Heidelberg 2014, pp. 16-21, esp. p.19.

23_ So the Self-Portrayal 2014, see https://wwwwwww (1.3.2014)

24_ Cf. Media Group Bitnik, Delivery for Mr. Assange, Basel 2014.

25_ See Lutz Dammbeck, Das Netz – die Konstruktion des Unabombers, Hamburg 2005.

26_ See Kupke in this volume; his differentiation of the concept of participation into a forced/reactive, free/inversive and contingent/material form deepens the triad of modes negotiated here from an ontological perspective. Feldhoff’s four-part model (loc. cit., p. 230f), with its types of individual, systemic, subjunctive, and socio-cultural participation, insufficiently focuses on the agents and production-aesthetic aspects of participatory strategies. Kelty/Panofsky (loc. cit. p. 475) also evaluate the scope of action of the „users“ in their seven-part scheme. The modes presented here represent a further development of the model presented by the author in 2014, loc. cit.

27_ Lars Blunck, Between Object & Event. Participation art between myth and participation, Weimar 2003; see also Irit Rogoff, Looking Away. Participations in Visual Culture, in: After Criticism. New Responses to Art and Performance, Gavin Butt (Ed.), Malden, MA/Oxford, UK 2005, pp. 117-134.

28_ Prominently represented by Michael Fried a.a.O.; Melitta Kliege, Functions of the Viewer. Models of participation by Joseph Beuys and Antoni Tàpies, Munich 1999; Erika Fischer-Lichte Aesthetics of the Performative, Frankfurt a.M. 2004, esp. p.332ff; Sandra Umathum, Art as Performance Experience. On the discourse of intersubjective situations in contemporary exhibition art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Erwin Wurm, Tino Sehgal, Bielefeld 2011; Bishop (2012) a.a.O., especially p.219ff; Rebentisch (2013) a.a.O.; p.58ff.

29_ Grant H. Kester gives an overview of how to differentiate clearly without cooperation from collaboration. See ders., The One and the Many. Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Durham/London 2011

30_ See website Icelandic art Center (ICA) and project A detailed discussion in Kunstforum International vol. 233/234, p.76-79

German version first published in Kunstforum International Volume 240, June-July 2016, pp.31-55; see here on the website.


Über Max_Glauner

Lecturer, Researcher, Autor & Cultural Journalist Zürich | Berlin
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