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Interesting piece/rant on Peter Dobey’s blog about the nature and function of the artist in the context of ‘participatory art’. The piece was stimulated by an exchange the author had with author Claire Bishop at the launch of her book ‘Artificial Hells’ at the Kadist Gallery in San Francisco.  Dobey is highly critical of much of the newer performance art that – like Headless – is based on a networked participatory mode of production that blurs the distinction between the artists and the various other characters that they might draw into their ‘work’.  Dobey’s piece is an impassioned plea for artists to maintain their distinctiveness, even if they do mix it with the world outside.

Speaking as the ‘sociologist’ (not really, but it’ll do for the moment) that ‘participates’ in the art works of others, I find this argument curious.  I don’t pretend to be an ‘artist,’ and would never claim to be, but by participating with those who do make that claim, I nevertheless have been able to collaborate in the production of art-works of various kinds.  Indeed I am an integral part of some of them (chiefly in the form of droning voice).  For the projects I have been involved with, and particularly Headless, the authorial role of the artists seems to me to be entirely intact even if, on occasions, they seek to cause a little confusion (for soundly artistic purposes of course) among their audiences.  And it is this latter plural that seems to me to be most important here.

Whether one likes or loathes ‘research-based’, ‘participatory’ or any other form of performance art, when it works it seems to speak to audiences other than (and in addition to) the conventional gallery audiences and the critics.  Sometimes that includes Dobey’s ‘sociologists’, but the significance of widening the productive input to these works in this way is not because sociology has suddenly become more interesting than art (trust me, it hasn’t), but because the synergies between them produce (sometimes) more than the sum of their parts.  True, some of it comes across as preachy hypocritical rubbish, but was there ever a time when artists clearly being artists didn’t occasionally produce terrible stuff?

I also don’t want artists to be sociologists (God alone knows we have enough of them already), but I am very happy for the dictinction to be blurred from time to time, if it means that together we do things that we can’t do apart for groups of people that might not normally go anywhere near a gallery.

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