Editorial Remarks – Issue 4

This issue of In Circulation seeks to query the orientations that participatory practices, methods, and theories have taken in recent decades. Our work has been inspired and informed by a multiplicity of events and movements around the world such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, the interventions of Anonymous, the 2014 Hong Kong protests, the 2014 uprisings in North America to protest police brutality against men of colour (including the police-killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown), and the massive protests over forty three missing students in Mexico. In Canada, the Idle No More movement and the Quebec student strike erupted in 2012 and gave evidence of the geopolitically specific nature of participation.[1] Context matters, and these distinct events provide nuanced views of the notion of participation, one that needs to be qualified every time it is used.

These contrasting models of participation, the way their meaning and strategy change from one sphere to the other, from one agent to another, also suggest a range of questions guiding this special issue of In Circulation. What is participation? Who can participate and who cannot? Why participate? What is the role and what are the limits of technologies and platforms to contemporary forms of participation? What strategies and forms of collaboration are deployed to draw attention to or trouble conventions of gender, nationhood, class, ethnicity, or faith? These questions are increasingly profiled and addressed in academic fields, art production, popular culture, and the media—and they are the focus of the submissions selected for this issue of In Circulation.

The Participatory Condition, an international colloquium hosted by Media@McGill in November 2013, was devoted to discussing such questions, and included a Participatory, Open, Online Course (or POOC). This edition of In Circulation is intended as a reply to this colloquium, and will add to the discussions it featured.

This project consists of two main threads: the journal issue entitled “To Participate: Global and Spatial Perspectives” and the exhibition “Contingent: Only if Participation Occurs,” featuring participatory artworks at the Montreal artist-run centre Studio XX from December 11th to 19th, 2014.

Three objectives were central to our work on this issue. First, we wanted to move away from the binary thinking wherein participation is seen as absolutely positive or negative.[2] Second, we were especially interested in how social networks function in contexts such as Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The second objective was founded in the idea that the overemphasis of Western approaches to participation ultimately contributes to the universalization of certain values and their flow in one main direction: from the West to the “rest.”[3] Third, we wanted to consider the broader spectrum of colonialism to reflect on the idea that participatory practices “do not welcome us equally.”[4] This perspective, we believe, forces us to consider how race, gender, sexuality and other social constructs prevent the participation of certain bodies and not others.

For this project, we chose to develop the analysis of participation by turning to particular case studies. Each product on the market, each social movement, each video game or app, each artwork, poses a set of questions that can only be answered by carefully looking at their propositions and their generated responses, the context in which participation takes place, and so forth.

This interdisciplinary issue also includes contributions from Art History and Communication Studies. It gives attention not only to objects of study that are participatory, but also to the range of participatory models active in research today—whether through interdisciplinarity, intergenerational engagement, cross-cultural exchanges, or collaborative research projects, particularly those engaging global perspectives. The texts in this issue pursue the political climates, economic conditions, and understandings of specific iterations of community that have buttressed particular ways of participating, whether through media or artworks.

The larger framework of our personal approach to the notion of participation is informed by recent scholarship in art and media that seek to disrupt the participatory model by calling into question certain of its commonly celebratory claims. In art history, participation has been approached as a strategy of the avant-garde used to disrupt complacency and work against the alienation inherent to modernity, as suggested by curator Nicolas Bourriaud, or to enact democracy and apparently deeper forms of community by creating antagonistic scenarios as counter-argued by art historian Claire Bishop. Adding to these debates, Grant Kester, Nina Felshin, and Lucy Lippard have each differently proposed that audiences for artworks be considered as the recipients, collaborators, and contributors to contemporary artworks that claim to have a genuine stake in participation. Clearly these different authors have very specific and contrasting ideas, not only of what participation is at its best, but how, where, and under what conditions it can most effectively be enacted. This edition of In Circulation proposes in turn that there are spatially and contextually specific modes of participation; through the gathering this collection of essays, our objective is not to develop a hierarchy of ideal participations, but to explore a range of ways that participation happens in global settings.

Multisensory participatory experiences have also been theorized, emphasizing their political and cultural value, often to tease out their phenomenological workings, especially in museums and galleries. David Howes and Constance Classen’s research has revealed the multisensory legacy of museums and collections. In the seventeenth century, for instance, European collections were open to élite audiences encouraged to touch, smell, and even taste objects on display. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, rules of visitor comportment in museums dramatically shifted, and the eye became the principle organ for engagement with collections. Today’s museums give evidence of another shift in attitudes, perhaps back to the seventeenth-century model, where audiences are ushered into galleries as embodied beings whose full sensoria are increasingly attended to through various curatorial ventures, public programs, and art practices.

Other authors have investigated the political and economic contexts that inflect participation (Canclini, Howes, Mosquera). Theories of gender and sexuality are equally useful in giving accent to participatory practices, especially from a phenomenological point of view (Ahmed). Frameworks that trace the history of the very notion of participation and participatory cultures are also extensive (Carpentier, Delwiche, Henderson, Jenkins). Recent discussions have investigated the relations between participation, power, and democracy (Crawford, Barney), while others have questioned the assumption that participation is good in itself and have addressed issues of class, gender, and race (González, Nakamura, Sterne). There are also formulations arguing for different forms of abstention or refusal to participate (Jurgenson, Portwood-Stacer).

The eight papers in this issue present connections among agents, geographies, deployment of technologies, participatory strategies, and models. We do not claim that these papers speak to or capture all forms of participation. They do, however, provide critical tools for reflecting on how specific local conditions inspire people to participate in a vast array of ways.

Possible, a collaborative essay and art intervention by Cynthia Hammond, Camille Bédard, Shauna Janssen, Roger Latour, and Itai Peleg focus attention on a protected urban landscape in Montreal called Le Champ des Possibles, or the field of possibilities. In October 2014, the Canadian-Pacific Railway Company bulldozed a section of this field; Possible tells the story of this field, a site of struggle over nearly two decades, and offers reasons to participate in the re-greening of this green area.

Ana da Cunha critiques and analyzes art practices that harness mobile technologies, pointing out the sovereign role of communications technologies corporations in curtailing, influencing, and potentially blocking such projects through the control of communications networks. She turns to concrete examples of social movements that have used locative media to organize and implement manifestations and protests, such as the 15M Movement (Spain, 2011), and the protests popularly referred to as the Arab Spring (North Africa, 2010-2012). As da Cunha demonstrates, the corporately controlled nature of these networks should inflect an understanding of the way in which artist’s projects using locative media might realize democratic, activist, or counter-cultural objectives.

Nicole Lattuca’s project is a cooperative and pedagogical effort on the remote Fogo Island, Newfoundland, on the edge of the North Atlantic. Fogo Island Decentralized Academy (2014) is a mobile architectural environment modeled after the “shed,” a form of traditional vernacular architecture widely visible in Newfoundland. Lattuca’s project repurposes the shed for use as a mobile classroom that will be “launched” at different locations on the island. Long-practiced in Newfoundland, house launching is a method for moving buildings to new locales according to need. Lattuca’s text considers the responses of her collaborators as well as the varied formats of participation that her project invited from the community.

Continuing this thread, Joanna Griffin provides an exposé on her involvement in the artist-led community-driven and collaborative, participatory outreach program Moon Vehicle in India. Griffin examines the way that knowledge about the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft lunar program circulated through intergenerational and interdisciplinary settings such as workshops. This text investigates the possibilities for public participation and the exchange of knowledge in an ambitious, national lunar program.

This issue contains an interview between Gretchen King and Heba Y. Amin as both a transcription and an audio file. The discussion focuses on Amin’s project working with the Speak2Tweet archive. Speak2Tweet was a platform that emerged in response to the Egyptian government’s national shutdown of the Internet during street protests in Egypt. This platform allowed people to make landline calls to a voice messaging service which transmitted their voice into a posting on the social media site Twitter with the hashtag #Egypt. Amin outlines her interest in and her use of these important voice messages, which attracts her attention because it reveals of some of the limitations of attempts to use corporately owned social media for political dissent.

Cláudio Bueno‘s “Always Something Between Us” (sempre algo entre nós in Portuguese) uses the title of an artwork by Vitor Cesar to reflect on the non-tangible yet existent characteristic of participatory art practices wherein there is “something” between artists and spectators. By looking at key examples of Brazilian participatory art such as Ricardo Basbaum, Lygia Clark, Flávio de Carvalho, Lygia Pape, and the author himself, Bueno raises key questions around the conditions of artistic encounters, if not confrontations, when “something” like a poster, the body, or a series of objects to be manipulated can connect and disconnect artists, artworks, and spectators.

Finally, Chantale Potié‘s paper focuses on the 2013 solo exhibition “Germaine Koh: Weather Systems.” Held at Kamloops Art Gallery in Kamloops, British Columbia, on Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation territory. This show deals with themes of environmental weather conditions contrasted with forms of Indigenous knowledges and histories. Through the concept of “translation,” Potié proposes that since gaps in understanding are unavoidable, breakdowns and missing links can potentially be a means to recognize these limits in communicating with others.

Both this issue of In Circulation and the exhibition “Contingent: Only if Participation Occurs” point to different directions, community projects, artworks, and methodologies where intellectuals, artists, and/or educators establish the rules of participations or others where the rules are designed by participants themselves. The processes and outcomes discussed by each contributing author further complicate the idea of the qualitative differences between designing “with” audiences, vis-à-vis designing “for” them.[5] When we are invited or incited to participate, many factors add to the complexity of the action: context, motivation, and goals, for instance. The tenor and potential outcomes of participating in different events and situations, like those represented as case studies in this journal, are so diverse as to baffle any attempt at categorizing or defining just what participation is. A political uprising or a cocktail party, a pedagogical artwork (like that realized by Nicole Lattuca) or a large-scale graffiti project (as discussed by Loren Lamin), may seem entirely at odds with one another. Our objective in this special issue of In Circulation is to show the extensive range of locations and performative actions that can qualify as participatory in order to demonstrate that models of participation are specific to their global and spatial orientations.

Mark Clintberg and Erandy Vergara




[1] In Quebec, in 2012, thousands of students and other citizens gathered to speak out against proposed tuition increases. Students organized protests and gained leverage for the movement using social media, but also employed significantly low-tech strategies of participation including marches during which protestors would bang on pots and pans. Also founded in 2012, the Idle No More movement sought to prevent the pervasive laws and legislation that have continually violated Indigenous treaty rights.
[2] The association of participation with “activity” has created an aura of positivity which, as many scholars have pointed out, result in cash rewards for many industries,[2] while the opposite perspective cancels the opportunity to examine and learn from tactics of participation which have had an impact on macro and micro conflicts.
[3] Gerardo Mosquera, Caminar con el diablo: textos sobre arte, internacionalización y culturas (Barcelona: Exit, 2010).
[4] Here, we paraphrase Jennifer González, who writing about race in installation art writes: “The museum as a whole, as an ideological home, does not welcome us equally.” Jennifer Gonzalez, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).
[5] As scholars such as Jacques Rancière and Gayatri Spivak have pointed out, the condescending impulse behind the assumption that certain people—students, spectators, the “subaltern”—need to be told what to do and how to do it in order to be emancipated. See Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 66-111 and Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: Fabrique, 2008).