Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation: Pablo Helguera
Next, I called Pablo Helguera to see what he had to say. I was sitting in my car between a funder meeting and a trustee lunch. Pablo, by a fluke had a bit of time between appointments as well. He is an excellent candidate for comment because he is a writer, artist, and longtime producer of events and education programs – currently at the Museum of Modern Art. My first question was whether he though it is important to call participatory, social projects art. He was very clear and quick to answer, “Yes.” He continued, “This sort of practice comes from a reflection on art making. It is produced in an art context, and people who do these projects rely on the support system of the art world to promote them. In addition, there are political reasons to call it art: this form of making work should help us rethink our role of art in society, and to accept that it doesn’t fit within the existing support frameworks (museums, etc) concedes room for more conventional kinds of art, and as a result to the continuation of the status quo.”
“However,” he continued, “it is also important to consider that this sort of art can change identity over time or under different circumstances. The same project might evolve from art to non-art, or vice versa. This is true of people. I am a dad in one context, and artist in another, and museum professional in a third. I became aware of this by doing art projects where I was not sure what they were. Some projects have evolved from installation, to therapy, to activism or journalism. My School of Panamerican Unrest was part road trip, part provocation, part education program. But it is still valuable to consider when and where this sort of project is art. Let’s not pretend that the question of its status as art is unimportant!”
Okay, I got it. So, if this sort of practice can and should be called art at least part of the time, what sort of aesthetic criteria would you use? Pablo returned to his first answer and then went on: “As I said, it depends on the context,” he said, “as artists, we have a tool box that allows us to use different sensorial —mainly visual— strategies to convey a wide range of things. But here is an idea that I have been thinking about. A lot of participatory art uses recognizable, everyday life activities. The familiarity is disarming. In these projects, the process of communication includes aesthetic choices. For example, Immigrant Movement International has a logo, and the look of the logo, made through specific aesthetic choices, communicates meaning. We become conscious of what those choices look like. But in these life-art projects, there is familiarity and alienation simultaneously. There are twists in the expected rituals and visual rhetoric. So the built-in, automatic response to a situation unfolds into a multi-layer experience. It is like an onion where there is one layer after the next that you can peel off. This intersection of art and life can begin the reinvention of rituals. You might think you are in a conventional place or activity, but it is not life as you know it. It forces you to think and rethink where you are and who you are with. There is a delicate balance because this sort of alienation in everyday life can be insulting to participants, so you have to walk a delicate line. There is attraction, puzzlement, intrigue, aesthetic seduction.”
I was wildly jotting notes trying to keep up. But it was all food for thought. This idea is not so far off of the notion of “defamiliarization,” the common aesthetic badge of modern art. But this is real-time defamiliarization of everyday life into art. It reminded me of my trip to Immigrant Movement International not an hour earlier. Perhaps partially because I am thinking about aesthetics a lot these days, I was acutely aware of the project as art. But it was life as well. A group of women were learning English. A group of bikes were getting ready to be assembled and reassembled by the women from We Bike. It was a place of possibility and meeting. You’re right Pablo, it is not life as I know it, and the notion that it is somehow art hovered in my consciousness… but then I awoke from my reverie and rushed off to my trustee lunch.