In the earliest theoretical paper that mentions participatory art in my native language of Icelandic, philosopher of art Gunnar J. Árnason (2008) sketches out three different positions “artists have assumed to answer the question of what [political art] may achieve” (513); didactic art, modernism, and avant-garde. Didactic art he defines as art with politics or social issues as its subject matter. The counterpoint to didactics, suggests Árnason, may be found in what he defines as modernism; the ideal of art for art’s sake and the emphasis on the political autonomy of art — an emphasis which may under certain conditions be an explicitly political or socially engaged position, as Árnason makes clear. The avant-garde, according to Árnason, aims to bridge what is seen as a gap between art and life and is based on the premise that the artist may either choose to be “subjected to the hegemonic order or position themselves in opposition to the status quo and put up a fight.” (512). This resistance leads to a demand for the tearing down of traditional aesthetics, museums, galleries, and art institutions, as well as the walls between different fields of art. To these three diverging positions, Gunnar introduces a fourth category: participatory art:
If participatory art aims to accomplish anything, it is to change the relationship between the artist and the spectator in the broadest possible sense. … Participatory art does not offer any teachings, no preaching, neither propaganda nor salesmanship. Contrariwise, it offers a utopian vision of human interaction upon a level playing field, with no predetermined roles. This vision should be familiar, for it is simply the democratic ideal itself (518)
To demonstrate his theoretical framework, Árnason musters the work of artist Hlynur Hallsson, particularly an installation produced in the city of Marfa, Texas in August of 2002. The installation was intended to “initiate discussions with people in town about how the wider world viewed and discussed the United States” (505). Gunnar gives the following account of the project:
The exhibition hall was empty, apart from a few slogans that Hlynur had written on the walls, using a graffiti spray can. The slogans were written in both English and Spanish, in the spirit of critical voices that were loudly heard in Europe at the time: “The real axis of evil are Israel, USA and the UK,” “George W. Bush is an idiot,” “Ariel Sharon is the top terrorist” (2008: 506).
As Árnason tells the story, the graffiti provoked harsh responses, causing Hallsson to erase the slogans and spray new and contradictory messages on the walls (stating that the axis of evil were North-Korea, Iran and Iraq, that the US president was a good leader, and (having nothing to do with the comments about Ariel Sharon) that Iceland was not a banana republic). These changes were also met negatively. Local artists found Hallsson to be giving in to censure and many in town felt that their views and opinions were being skewed and misrepresented. In fact, the installation provoked a stir on a national level, with The New York Times ultimately publishing on the story. In subsequent works, Hallsson changed his method. Instead of spraying slogans offering only one side of an argument, he made sure to feature contradictory slogans on the same wall from the get-go.
Árnason suggests Hallsson’s graffiti works aim to provoke public responses on incendiary political issues without the artist taking a stand. Reflecting on the three positions, available to politically engaged artists, Árnason concludes that Hallsson’s works
should not be defined as didactic, because they are not intended to mediate political, moral or social messages in order to convince a spectator. Moreover, Hallsson’s works cannot be said to be modern, in the way the concept is used here. They have more in common with the 20th century avant-garde, although with a certain caveat. Hallsson employs many methods derived from avant-garde models, but towards a different end.
In Hallsson’s work … there is an attempt made to reorient the attention from the relationship between the artist and the artwork, the artist’s activity which becomes a certain product, subject to attention and interpretation, towards the relations that arise between the artist and the public … And when discussing the artwork in this context it is usually some kind of an event that entails communication with people and happens in circumstances created by the artist, or is the result of a process that people participate in. To differentiate this from the avant-garde … we may call this participatory art. (2008: 514-515)
What I find interesting about the case of the Marfa graffiti and other similar works, is that they do not require immediate participation or collaboration on the spot, which are certainly characteristics of many of Hallsson’s other works, such as an official football match during one FIFA World Cup where anyone could play. He is indeed among a rather small group of Icelandic artists working methodically with various levels of participation as early as the late 90s and early noughties. In theoretical terms, the Marfa work, and others like it, might seem to water out the concept of participation. At the same time, however, Hallsson’s graffiti works hint at the various intermediaries through which people participate in our time. Do they warrant the definition of participatory art — or should we rather call them something else?
Árnason, Gunnar J. (2008). „Hlynur Hallsson og þátttökulist.“ Skírnir 182 (Haust): 503-518.