The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues
MAY 2012 Issue
Art Books

Waking Up from the Nightmare of Participation

Nina Valerie Kolowratnik and Markus Miessen, eds.
Waking Up from the Nightmare of Participation
(Expodium, 2011)

After my review of Markus Miessen’s The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality) (Sternberg, 2010) was published in the July/August 2011 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, I received a Facebook message from architect Carson Chan, the author of the book’s epilogue. I must review the next book in the already three-strong series, he said. This surprised me, as my review was not celebratory. Once it was published, I even worried it was unfair. But Chan’s epilogue was itself much like a negative review. Miessen had asked Chan to contribute to Nightmare, and even though Chan didn’t agree with Miessen’s logic, the essay was included—as the last word, no less.

Chan must have heard me as a similarly confused voice, and wanted to make sure I knew there were more of us out there. In fact, he told me, these voices make up the fourth work in the series, Waking Up from the Nightmare of Participation. The book is a collection of essays, compiled by Miessen and Nina Valerie Kolowratnik, with an introduction in the form of a conversation between the two authors. Chan’s disparaging epilogue is reprinted as the first essay, suggesting that Miessen took his criticism so to heart that he constructed this whole book in answer to Chan’s qualms.

In Nightmare, Miessen suggests that a group’s concerns are not his own, and that an emphasis on participation can and will subtract from one person’s dynamic work. He then goes on to ask Eyal Weizman, Chantal Mouffe, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and others to join the conversation. As Chan notes, “If Miessen’s point is to celebrate non-consensual forms of generating knowledge, the contributing voices in the book seem to suggest the opposite.”

And so, in Waking Up, the contributors are specifically given just the one platform, and no way of communicating with the others. Each piece stands alone as a response to Nightmare—this was the only criteria they were required to fulfill. In this way, each author speaks as an individual about participation, while participating only in a dialogue or monologue, not some artificial intertextual brainstorm. Despite Nightmare’s emphasis on the term “participation” and a discussion of its recent overuse in the critical vocabulary, Miessen’s heavy hand is what defines that text. To read Nightmare is to witness an undemocratic project, and it is not hard to imagine why those involved would prefer the equidistant responsibilities of Waking Up, with its leader relinquishing his autarchic grip. Miessen may not have not stepped down from his position in this newest book, but he has merely significantly altered the tenor of his leadership. Kolowratnik and he include their letter to the authors after their introduction, explaining that they would like a reaction to Nightmare, but that this reaction could take any form.

In Waking Up, everything that is included is left up to the author, not the editor. There are no restrictions for length or content, and there is no summarizing epilogue. As an evolution, it works. Chan’s main concern was that Miessen’s previous work hadn’t instituted its own agenda, and that the only beneficial way to read Nightmare was to become an “active participant of the text,” or, to use one of Miessen’s repeated terms, to act as the “individual outsider.” Waking Up is solely made up of the individual outsider. Miessen and Kolowratnik asked others to respond to Nightmare, and stressed that nothing would be edited before publication. The only echoes of collaboration in this collection are found in the book’s form itself. The essays, drawings, poems, and stories are separate voices speaking of a similar experience. The tone is that of an orated lecture series. Each strives for simplicity and cogency, which is rare for contributions to a discourse about increasingly complex modes of expression. It feels more current than its predecessor in that it (like what we are now used to finding on many websites and message boards) is a space for individualistic, self-contained thoughts. Because the work is not regulated, there is plenty of room for redundancy. We are warned about this, though, and so are free to wander around texts as if walking through a gallery, focusing where we wish.

Patricia Reed’s breakdown of what is annoying about so-called participatory thinking smartly outlines the pitfalls and promising ideas in Nightmare, while introducing her own terms. Miessen cleverly avoids the over-assigned word “democracy” in his books, but Reed says our linguistic attachments are partially to blame for the laziness Miessen complains of, and are not to be overlooked. “What is at stake is a fundamental shift from the very unsettling force implied in the ‘-cracy’ of democracy, to an ‘-archy’ (of oligarchy, monarchy) that is some form of legitimated, grounded power.”

In Tirdad Zolghader’s contribution, he points out that the art world’s biggest hurdle is its own self-interest, which tends to repel outside evaluation. He paraphrases art historian Thomas Crow: “Can it be mere coincidence that we’re so eager to have those guest scholars among us, but the favor is rarely returned?”

Jeremy Till adds to the chorus of voices shouting back at Miessen by critiquing his generalizing of the term “participation.” Till says that, on the last page of Nightmare, “Miessen introduces ‘three positions with which modes of proactive participation can become meaningful: attitude, relevance, and responsibility.’ But, coming so late in the book, we are left hanging as to what these could actually entail.” Till also sympathizes with the artist’s struggle. “Whenever I approach participation, I do so with the brilliantly succinct warning of Gillian Rose ringing in my ears: ‘the architect is demoted but the people do not accede to power.’”

In Waking Up, we see what “attitude, relevance, and responsibility” can do for a text. Postmodernist readers are aware of the many potential attributions that can be given to any single artist’s opinion. We are, none of us, only ourselves, and we can, none of us, be anything other than these selves. If art and critical writing must have a personality—since each person’s work must represent, in some way, his or her own self—it makes sense that when discussing an erasure of individualism in participation, we see an unedited, raw version of each speaker.

We also see how original, un-contextualized opinions, hardly edited and shoved together as 39 essays in a book—only the second in the Expothesis series—at first feels abrasive. The book includes intentionally sloppy drawings by artist Dan Perjovschi and thoughtful poetry by writer Maria Fusco, artist Phillip Zach, and musician/director Schorsch Kamerun. The poetry is a delight to read among the denser, academic-sounding selections, and yet the drawings make an even quicker impact. Many essays are well-crafted, with visuals and chapter titles, while others take the form of a rant. Artists Liam Gillick and Hu Fang supply the fiction-reader with two enchanting allegories, and architect Jan Nauta supplies the logician with entertaining diagrams he created using statistics from the other Participation books.

As a former English teacher, I read Waking Up as a study in essay structuring. What is the function of the form? I asked, as I always like to ask while reading. Often, in other critical works, I’m hard-pressed for an answer. The form is either of the standard essay: generic, striving for an a-authorial voice; or it is so of its own creation, it is hard to hold against another genre.

When each piece in a collection is a response to another piece of writing, it is easy to compare, say, science fiction writer Mark von Schlegell’s hyper-hybridized story with architects Eva Tuerks and Magnus Nilsson’s joint contribution: a solitary photograph. Each essay relies on the pretext of the other books in the series and of Miessen’s introductory letter to the authors, explaining the book’s premise, so the audience and context are both quite clear. And as an “active participant in the text,” I may choose where to find a message, based only on structure and content.

The penultimate selection, art critic Jan Verwoert’s “Notes on Collaborative Production,” outlines what works when a group’s individual efforts are heard collectively. Tyrannical control held by one group member is sometimes best for a project, he says. And, of course, designating a leader or leaders also has its downfalls. “The facilitators, by virtue of their central role in shaping the group, will most likely be the ones to be dragged back into precisely the position of the representatives (of outside demands and internal desires) that they seek to abolish.” But a truly participatory democracy, “without the intermediary of a central authority figure,” at its best, will work wonders. Verwoert insists this only semi-seriously, calling it “the sheer fun of weird gods at play,” and noting the “divine moments” in The Muppet Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Selecter performing live.

This last essay, a celebration of participation, in some ways applies to the entirety of Waking Up—the supposed anti-participatory answer to a downcast nose at participatory projects. Although the book is constructed of vastly disparate answers to one problematized term, the collection eventually reads as a series of similar dissatisfactions. Each is, because it must be, reflective of the times through which we all, collectively, persist.


Natasha Stagg


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues