Participation, Manipulation

Participation, Manipulation was my final thesis for my MA Fine Art course at maHKU, Utrecht.


Participation, Manipulation

It’s interesting how an artwork can influence the crowd in such a profound way. Not only by presenting itself as something interesting enough to generate participation from the public, but also by seeming to become more and more diffuse in a way, simply not making clear anymore what belongs to the art world and what not. In some ways, this diffusing of the artwork can be seen as a methodology. Within this method, it is possible to take any situation of the ‘real life’, and push through boundaries which would have been there if the ‘work’ or act couldn’t have been described as art. This gives artists the opportunity to boost the situations they recreate, and make them even more gruesome and/or grotesque than normally would have been possible, as well in the moral as the legal field.

Michael Portnoy, 27 GNOSIS, 2012

Michael Portnoy, 27 GNOSIS, 2012

A nice example of an artist pushing the boundaries with audience participation is the American artist Michael Portnoy. One of Portnoy’s works, 27 GNOSIS is a theatrically designed game show, where one could only leave the game if one wins. A game, which isn’t always funny, since some visitors were forced to stay in a giant mound made of mud for multiple hours before they were allowed to leave… Something that sounds fascinating, as long as you’re not part of the game. It’s also misleading in a way, if you love the aspect of winning games this installation sounds like the place to be, but when ‘winning’ means you can escape the installation as soon as possible, it’s questionable if ‘winning’ keeps its original meaning in this sense, since it takes away the goal of participating. Apparently his way of presenting the work and also himself to the crowd (he was the game show’s host) was good enough to let the crowd become obedient to him. Speaking in a low and almost threatening voice, no one dared to leave the performance, stepping out would obviously seemed to make the artist furious at the participant. This audience control Portnoy created was the key to success for his performance, making it cruel for the audience to participate. He managed to keep a very clear control over his audience, making the power relations very clear in a subtle way.

A work of my own where ‘winning’ is absolutely no part of the game is The World’s Most Exclusive Membership. The World’s Most Exclusive Membership is a membership designed by the great and fabulous Me, which is that exclusive, no one can become a member. Still, hundreds of people (as we speak, >850) have tried to become a member, and thousands (at this very moment >17.500) have already visited the accompanying website, The work questions what exactly is necessary to make people wanting to become a part of something, and most of all: what drives them to want to become a part of something they don’t know anything about at all? Most of the participants didn’t realize the membership was actually an art project, but on the other hand, I, as the creator, see it as a real membership as well, which is also being placed outside the field of art. It’s just very exclusive and therefore it actually doesn’t exist, but still, it’s not ‘only’ an artwork. I love it when things get confusing.

Very obvious to mention in this context is Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay Relational Aesthetics. Bourriaud sees the artwork as a social interstice; the technique used to realize a work isn’t crucial anymore, but has become a tool to achieve something what he describes as inter-human relations; “the artists sets his sights more and more clearly on the relations that his work will create among his public, and on the invention of models of sociability.” (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 2002). This is very different compared to the way art was understood before. Also, he states that the viewers complete the work, and the artist in the role of programmer or composer, rather than initiator. The artist creates specific conditions or settings to gather certain interaction. Social experiments within the field of art seem to fit in very well in this perspective. I personally believe the artist isn’t solely the initiator, but can also take part in the work itself and function like an initiator, stimulating, mediating and controlling factor at the same time; like Michael Portnoy did in his 27 GNOSIS. In response to Bourriaud Claire Bishop has written ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, a writing where she first defines Relational Aesthetics and points out the errors of Bourriaud’s theory afterwards. Bishop notices two problems with Bourriaud’s essay and for instance the way he curated the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, opened in 2002; she states that there’s a relevant distinguishing between a work being “wilfully unstable” and ‘just not finished’ as well in the conceptual level as on the productive side of the process, and second: what exactly does changing an art exhibit space into something else, a social space in this case, achieve? The space of Palais de Tokyo becomes a place for entertainment amidst art, in contrast to the former traditional art space. “What the viewer is supposed to garner from such an ‘experience’ or creativity, which is essentially institutionalized studio activity, is often unclear.” Art seems to become a pretext for realizing happenings within an art institute which aren’t necessarily (good) art projects or works at all… ‘Art as the excuse;’ it would be a very nice title for a show featuring crappy artworks. There are numerous of projects where it’s doubtful if they’re good works in itself but they are still called art; it’s an interesting thought that the field of relational aesthetics could provide more and more space for that what actually is just a terrible artwork, or not a piece of art at all. It’s on one side a good thing that there’s plenty of space to experiment with the boundaries of art in the setting of for instance social experiments, but on the other hand we’ll have to deal with a lot of bad works, coming from the point where those experiments and projects weren’t successful. Making art for the sake of art doesn’t always produce something good… In my opinion, this isn’t the case with Portnoy. Portnoy’s intentions are crystal clear in his game show. He claims the control of his audience and by that the power over the whole artwork, and with that it seems that the faith of the viewer is laying in Portnoy’s own hands. The public’s participation in relational art as described by Bourriaud plays a larger role in the works itself compared to the public staring at paintings featured in modernistic art shows. But does the viewer have as much influence on the final outcome of a project of for instance Portnoy as Bourriaud describes? In a work as 27 GNOSIS, the democratic aspect in the art projects as described in Relational Aesthetics seems to be just a sham… Jeff Wall’s 2006’ lecture ‘Depiction, Object, Event’ describes a movement in the arts which started in the seventies a hybrid form of art arose, something he called an intermediary structure, which ‘’has evolved from the basis of the fusion of Andy Warhol’s factory concept with post-conceptual mimesis.’’ Artists started to realize that things like anthropology, social psychology or therapies could make a second appearance within the field of art, and as Wall describes it, ‘’therefore, as art.’’ This mimesis allows artists to be able to experiment a lot with these domains who formerly have not been related to art in such a way, making the boundaries of what exactly is art, what is placed in the field of art and what is not, more and more diffuse. Personally, I’m convinced this is a good thing.

It’s a compliment for one who is trying to blend in the arts with daily life when even a government is getting confused about the true intentions and meaning of a work. An example of this is the recent developments around the Dr. Pill project. To be able to export one of my own projects out of The Netherlands, the Dutch government got confused whether the work was truly a piece of art or a real pill. They got confused so much they needed to plan a meeting with a team of pharmacists to figure out their point of view about the work. Is it really a highly poisonous pill or is it ‘just’ an artwork? It looks like a pill, but its size is ridiculously large, but it does have its own patient information leaflet. The person who made it claims to be an artist. But the pill contains morphine…. And plenty of other pills, illegally owned when you don’t have the required prescriptions. Shortly explained, Dr. Pill is a giant pill I made collecting medication through the Internet by placing advertisements on social network sites. Eat it and it will solve all problems imaginable. Lots of people sent me lots of medicine, varying from a simple aspirin to Ritalin and liquid morphine, and except for 1 slightly less naïve person; no one questioned my true intentions. The pill comes with an extensive patient information leaflet, and contains more than 160 different active ingredients. Because of that, the pill actually works. When consumed, you will most certainly die and all your problems will be solved. Its ingredients made it very hard to arrange a travelling permit for this work. In the end it came down to that it wasn’t allowed to take my wonderful little friend of Drion over the Dutch borders. Apparently I created a work that I’m not even allowed to own, and they told me I’m lucky that they allow me in a way to keep it. Here the world of arts collides with ‘real life’. But when this exact moment of collision is diffuse, how do we exactly know how far we can go? And where does the artwork become ‘too real’, to the point where institutes and governments from the non-art world have the feeling they have to do something against it? Would the artwork have to follow the rules of the non-art world at some point in order to be sure of its existence? Also, when what exactly is art and non-art will become more opaque, should there be made an exemption for art (or non-art) in how a government should handle it? (Not to mention the fact that if a government prohibits a work to leave the country and prevents the artistic knowledge of the work to be shared abroad it can be seen as a way of censorship.)

The mimesis Wall described seems to be applicable on every kind of non-art, therefore making everything to be ‘art-able’. And if everything could become art, art looks like the perfect environment to (re) create situations that are on the edge of what’s socially and/or morally accepted or acceptable. Social experiments can be seen as one of those things that can become art through mimicking them in the field of artistic practice, able to place the public into an environment they normally wouldn’t be found and force them to experience something completely different seen from a different, self-created perspective, able to reveal plans which couldn’t be carried out outside the field of art. This way, the possibilities seem almost endless to re-enact the most tremendous experiments. A lot of artists have been using social experiments in their practice, often inspired by a couple famous social experiments of the last couple decades. Some of the social experiments in the arts are re-enacted experiments from social studies or happenings, blurring the borders even more between what exactly belongs to the field of art and what not. Unfortunately, the most interesting (and evil) experiments have taken place outside the art world, often in quite plausible settings. Famous examples are doctor Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, where ordinary people got carried away with power and started to behave like monsters, and of course the experiment ‘Obedience to Authority’, which is better known as the Milgram experiment. That last experiment has been re-enacted by the American artist Rod Dickinson. Dickinson made an installation in a London gallery in 2002 with two rooms where one could see the original equipment Milgram used in the experiment, and another room with a video installation, where people can see documentation of the experiment. The interesting part of the video room was that there were leaflets hanging on the walls with strict instructions: “You will not be able to leave this space in case of emergency”, and more politely mentioned things like that. With these clear instructions, Dickinson seems to be testing the crowd how long they will stay in the video room. He tells the crowd to stay in the room, and wants to see if the public does so. Again, crowd control was applied to the work to make the audience do what the artist longed for. Apparently, it worked. For instance, Dickinson made a reviewer of The Guardian stay in the room for two hours, waiting and waiting for something to happen. Personally, I think this is the most interesting aspect of the work. Tell people to do something, and if you do it right, there seems to be quite a big chance of success. The work is like a one-way ticket: the participant only has one choice. If he or she wants to stay in the game, the person will have to obey you and see what happens. There’s no other possibility for the participant, and no way he or she can influence the outcome of the project. It’s all sorted out by the artist, from the beginning to the end. You can decide to leave the project, but if you decide to stay, you just have to follow the rules. And for this project of Rod Dickinson, these rules aren’t always rules you want to obey to. The Milgram experiment is well known for being very well known in itself in such a way that people will recognize it very easily as a given situation being a Milgram experiment. Therefore, many scientists believe that this foreknowledge of the crowd will influence the outcome of a similar experiment in such ways that the experiments results can’t be objectified anymore and therefore will become worthless. Dickinson reveals with this project that this isn’t the case. In fact, we’re less clever than we think we are, because apparently it’s still possible for us to not recognize overly famous patterns of notorious social experiments. We still obey to our superiors quite easily, more facile than we actually want ourselves to do. This way, Dickinson is also holding a mirror up to us. Are we aware of the fact that we’re still this influenceable, while we all knew what the original Milgram experiment was about? By re-enacting this in the field of art, it’s possible for the artist to keep that what he wants to re-enact and that what he wants to achieve by doing that, as pure as possible. He can purely focus on that what he believes needs to be done, and doesn’t have to pay attention to all kinds of rules for instance the field of sociology or science have to cope with.

Rod Dickinson, The Milgram Re-enactment, 2002

Rod Dickinson, The Milgram Re-enactment, 2002

Persuasiveness plays an important role in these kinds of experiments. Without the participant getting the idea that he or she really should obey to what’s requested, because there seems to be no other option, the participant won’t cooperate. Also, that which requests participation from the crowd must always offer the participant something in return; the idea of winning something sounds nice, or being able to witness a very important happening through participating as well, as long as the so called ‘reward’ looks satisfying enough to the soon to be participant, they’re willing to help you out. Often the way of presenting that what needs to gather participants is very important as well. If a person in a white coat tells you to swallow multiple pills a day, while holding a stethoscope, it’s way more believable than when the cousin of your aunt’s hairdresser tries to tell you to do the exact same thing. Next to applying enough mental pressure to the participant, the presentation of the whole package must be believable as well. Also, group behaviour plays an important role considering how easy one could proceed to participating. The crowd controls itself in a way, if you’re told to stay inside a circle drawn on the floor with 30 others, it’s much more likely that you will decide to stay in that circle than when you’re on your own or just with someone else. The essence of group behaviour derived from ancient times, where it wasn’t beneficial for the survival of the group if the group members didn’t collaborate well enough; something which can only be quite effective when everyone agrees on singing from the same hymn sheet. This also results that unaccepted behaviour will almost always, depending on the position of the dissident in the group, be excluded by the group, simply because that would be counterproductive for survival. The exclusion lasted just as long until the unwanted behaviour was gone, and the former rebellion could return to the group and would fit in the paradigm of the group again.

Where group behaviour is developed millions of years ago, it’s very interesting how that the behaviour formed such a long time ago relate to relatively very new developments like social network sites or the internet. The occurrence of this behaviour in this new environment, where we don’t know exactly how we should behave since the situation is quite new, can be seen as a candy store: in no other situation people are that easy to upset as in a situation where they haven’t really adjusted to, somewhere where they might not feel home yet. This brings in a lot of opportunities for new experiments and projects, forcing people onto this new situation and see how they will respond. People might be more willing to cooperate when they are not absolutely familiar with a certain situation; for instance, famous experiments like Milgram’s are staged so many times that other in design (very) related tests might not give an objective result since people already knew what it generally would be about. Our conceptual framework in which we place our behaviour, will eventually gradually have to adjust itself to a new environment. The term ‘paradigm shift’ is described for the first time in Thomas Kuhn’s book The Stucture of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and describes the framework as a model for our thoughts which slowly adjusts itself considering the environment where we live and the new knowledge we’ve gathered.

Planet Earth is as flat as a pancake → Planet Earth has a globular shape

The concept of the paradigm shift causes more or less that we start to view the same information in a different way. Kuhn first adapted this concept onto hard sciences only, but from the sixties on it’s also widely used in numerous non-scientific contexts like the sociology of knowledge. Staging art in the middle of a paradigm shift can have a very interesting outcome.

Artists like Michael Portnoy and Rod Dickinson use these group dynamics and changing conceptual frameworks quite well in their work. The chance that their participants won’t leave the group will become bigger when there are more people in the group itself, combined with the pressure forced upon the group from the artists themselves, like Portnoy’s diction at the 27 GNOSIS performance, where there’s absolutely no permission given to leave the scene. It’s well combined with making people feel uncomfortable enough in the newly created situation that they don’t know exactly how to respond, which makes it even more difficult to step out of the crowd. The question that pops into mind at this point is how far artists can go with this aspect of audience participation that isn’t that comforting at all for the audience itself. It could be the scenario of a horrific dream or movie, you’re in some plausible game show answering too difficult questions and you’re not allowed to leave until you’ve won the game. A process that can take hours, especially for the less clever among us. I think that these kinds of so called evil situations, created within the field of arts, will always be present in one way or another. Evil has been something of all eras, just as it isn’t possible to live a completely non-evil life where one does no harm to whoever or whatsoever, it won’t be possible to ban evil out of the arts. Therefore, it will always be there in a way, not every time just as present as it seems to be at this moment in time, but it’s impossible for it to be gone. We like to see how things could end up bad, as long as we’re not the subjects of the story. That’s why we keep watching tons of horror or thriller movies, and after a couple hours we can walk out of the cinema, completely safe and sound. But what if that experience of horror is moved more towards the ‘real world’, through the form of an artwork? The more realistic art projects can get, the better. The same also counts for movies, I believe; the moment where a movie can get stuck into your mind and effect you more than you hope for, and more than it would do when it would be just another source of entertainment. A movie can already change someone’s life; thanks to Alfred Hitchcock a lot of people now suffer from orhitophobia…

Very interesting in this field is the 1997 Austrian horror-thriller movie Funny Games. Both the original and the American remake are worth watching, but of course there are more fat people in the American version, and that’s probably why it’s also filmed in widescreen… Funny Games starts with a German family arriving at their holiday residence near a lake. Shortly after that two young men appear, who ask for four eggs on behalf of a neighbour. After dropping the eggs onto the floor and continuously requesting and ruining new ones, Peter and Paul, the young man who have sneaked into the family’s house, will not leave and are going to play little games with the family. Guessing games like ‘why do I still have this golf ball, so what did I actually hit with this golf club?’, ‘where did I hide your dog, which I just happen to have killed?’, and more sadistic fun stuff. They manipulate, they lie, also to themselves… They confuse both the family as the viewer by calling each other different names constantly, and by being completely unpredictable. The last game they play is that they’re going to bet with the family if they will still be alive by 9:00am in the morning. They murder every member of the family, father, mother and son, giving them a slight bit of hope of surviving every now and then. Before the killing starts, they
play the family members off against each other by for instance ordering the father to say to the mother to take off her clothes in front of the two intruders and her blindfolded son. By manipulating not only the mother, but also the father at the same time by ordering him to order his wife do to certain actions, they manage to create immense tensions between the family members themselves and the viewer, also because you never know what their next move will be… They kill the mother of the family as last, by casually dumping her off a boat. After that, they move on with the boat to another holiday residence plot, where they again ask the lady of the house for four eggs on behalf of a neighbour; and this way will continue their trial of murders. During the movie Peter and Paul incidentally start speaking directly towards the audience, making the public realize they are going to be in the position of a witness and accomplices even before the slaughter has started, and as a viewer you also realize that the movie isn’t the unfortunate family being killed, but revolves around their assassins. Because of that, the murderers do not only control their victims, but also the audience and therefore the entire film in itself. Not only figuratively, but also literally. At a certain point Peter even rewinds the movie, when the audience just got a glimpse of hope when it looked like the mother shot Paul. But unfortunately, after rewinding it, it all ended badly anyway. The thing I like most about Funny Games is how they force the audience to participate in their actions in an absolutely non-compromising way. As a viewer, there is no way back in taking notice of what they do. Peter and Paul are absolutely shameless about their actions and their motives and they’re honest about the fact that they actually do not have any reason to cause humankind so much trouble, a given which makes their actions even more repulsive. The way the perpetrators in Funny Games behave is in some ways quite different from my own artistic practice. The biggest difference is, I believe, the fact that Peter and Paul do all harm to their victims themselves, while I let the viewer get caught up in the work by their own actions, like a fly flying himself into a spider’s web. I create paths and ways people can behave within my projects more subtle, Peter and Paul force their own agenda onto them in a very brutal way.

Funny Games, video still, 1997

Funny Games, video still, 1997

That what happens in Funny Games is a ‘play of war’ according to Johan Huizinga’s book called Homo Ludens. Peter and Paul are even friendly enough to create some rules and conditions for the unfortunate family, still giving them no chance to actually win a.k.a. escape, but they want to play the game like gentlemen. According to Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens Funny Games wouldn’t be a fair game. Categorizable in the book’s chapter ‘Play and War’, it soon becomes clear that the family and the two young men are no equal match at all. It’s plausible that they might be in a physical way (two young men vs. two grown ups and a child), but the amount of mental pressure forced upon the family by Peter and Paul is way too much for them to handle. They obviously didn’t approach them as if they were their equals, seen from the perspective of the Homo Ludens. Also, the evil aspect of games is something that is, although it’s not explicitly written down in Huizinga’s essay, a very important part of the darker concept of the chapter ‘Play and War’. Written on the eve of World War II, Huizinga seemed to be very well aware of what was going to happen at short notice…

Would it be possible to re-enact a game as played in Funny Games in real life? I don’t think so. But it would be very interesting to find out how one could get as close as possible. Mostly, the artworks with a more evil aspect factually aren’t games, at least not according to Huizinga’s guidelines; it’s very often just one-way traffic, no further interaction. Sometimes an artist like Dickinson doesn’t want the public to have too much influence on the outcome of their participation, since that could drastically change the art project in itself and therefore its meaning. But quite often the artist does give the participant the feeling that they do have at least some influence, and that they could still improve the situation they’re in while participating in a project, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense for one to participate. The artist has to manipulate (or let us use the nicer, less negatively charged description ‘modificate’) the crowd in order for them to do whatever the artist wants or needs. The right arrangement of power relations is very important in this process. If it’s not absolutely clear who’s in charge during a performance like 27 GNOSIS, the chances of failure of the project will be quite high. Mutiny seems to lie in wait sometimes.

Adding the game aspect to re-enactments or newly created situations can have a very interesting outcome. Even more, if the situation is staged in a new environment, a moment between the earlier described set paradigms, moments where it’s not absolutely clear yet what’s going to happen and how people have to respond to new situations. I like it that my work takes place paradigm shifts, in this case the relatively new arrival of social network sites in our lives, and the more and more certain place they seem to have conquered in our society. My work isn’t necessarily about social media, but about the paradigm shift we’re now in and how groups of people, my beloved crowd, behaves in certain situations. Social media is my tool, still highly replaceable, until the next paradigm shift will appear, the (re) creating of situations can be seen as my method. I love it that by recreating situations within the field of art can be kept more ‘pure’, with less opacity than you’d experience outside the arts. One can solely focus on that what needs to be achieved, creating a project that is as realistic as possible, and to obscure that what is real and that what is not as much as possible.


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