FOCUS#2: GROUPING. A way of working

The introduction text of the book entitled Group Work by the Chicago based group Temporary Services, describes the notion of group collaboration as follows “It’s our sometimes contentious relationship to naming that makes us call ourselves a “group” rather than a collective”, “collaborative entity”, or “cooperative”. Choosing “group”, for Temporary Service, celebrates certain aspects of our own personal backgrounds in group work that aren’t easily named within the sometimes narrowly focused language of art practice. Being a group, for us, means reiterating our place in a larger general culture of people working with other people. It’s a kind of self analysis that led us to seek out other groups and viagra canadian their histories…” .

This second Focus reasons about the meanings and the strategies of group working significant today. Despite the proliferation of texts, exhibitions and talks produced around the topic of participatory art practices, the specific theme of group work has never been treated with the same importance.

In her book entitled Participation, the art critic Claire Bishop, delineates a brief history of the subject, pointing out the difference between the physical participatory artistic practices and the art that interacts with social realm, also indicating the avant-garde period as the starting point of those experimental practices. Moreover she lists three different purposes the participatory art brought into play from the beginning:

1. The activation of a subject “who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation

2. “[…]The gesture of ceding some or all authorial control…”

3. And third, the restoration of a community way of working “ through a collective elaboration of meaning.”

If the British art critic has the merit for having individuated the origins and the principles of participatory art, Janet Kraynak has forwarded the analysis of these practices revealing their weak points. In her article, Dependent Participation: Bruce Nauman’s Environment she argues that nowadays society encourages and supports participation. Nonetheless this process of inclusion leads not to self-determination, but to alienation. Our society, points out Janet Kraynak, doesn’t repress or constrain, instead it seduces, manipulates and enforces conformism. Starting from this consideration, Kraynak demonstrates how participatory art forms are conceived on a dialectic dynamic of participation and viagra without prescription sale control, an intrinsic procedure which cannot escape the market policies. In this sense, even in art, participation is experienced as an obligation, a tacit form of control in which reciprocity is all but guaranteed, and desire and will are exploited becoming forms of control.

Although I agree with both of the critics’ analysis, I think that an important point of reference is missing: the study around the working methodologies of groups and their implications in the art system. In order to clarify, It seems to me that for a complete analysis of participatory art practices we shouldn’t just consider the procedures that include audiences in art pieces but, more importantly, we ought to reflect on the group’s working procedures that are put in practice in order to reach agreement between its members and to smooth criticality when making common decisions. These operations are very distant from situations of control and obligation as explained by Janet Kraynak in her article. In my opinion, they represent real models of participation because they are based on practices of consensus, a term to be intended as described in the Quotations Chapter of the book Group Work by Temporary Services – citation from Act Up New York:

Consensus doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is necessarily the best one possible, or even that they are sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her/his on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn’t given a proper hearing…

Furthermore it’s not surprising that group work has difficulties working within the art system which, according to Brett Bloom in his article Making Art in Groups, Couples and other Configurations, it’s set up to promote and sell the work of individual artists, not groups of them. In fact the effort to reach a group consensus may cause a loss of aesthetic coherence or generate a change in the original aims of the projects – two “risky working procedures” that aren’t usually accepted by Art Institutions. Since group work is not fully recognized by the art world nor by the critical debate around participatory art, it requires a constant self-analysis to adapt itself to different contexts and circumstances. It’s precisely because of its intrinsic capability of self-analysis and self-adaptation that, in my opinion, group work can generate favourable changes and significant variations in the art system.

According to the above analysis, the five projects chosen for this Focus follow two mother lodes. The first reasons about group work as a way to produce participatory processes based on models of consensus rather than forms of control and obligation, with the aim to show some practical examples. This is the case of Re:Group: Beyond Model Of Consensus an exhibition organized by Not An Alternative around the notion of participation in our society with the aim to produce alternatives to the existing social participatory structures; the project also functions as a platform for discussion and most importantly, some of the artpieces are open to be reinvented and extended by the audience. The OURGOODS launch project entitled Workdress by Caroline Woolard, promotes exchanges between a work-dress – designed for the occasion – and local goods and services, contributing to diffuse an alternative way of collaboration. The third example Im/Possible Community organized by Shedhalle in collaboration with ZHdK, foresaw a series of exhibitions, workshops and events to reason around the notion of community presenting alternative kind of groupings.

The other lode launches an historical analysis of group working which reflects on past strategies and groups: Group Work is a book published by Temporary Services and printed by Printed Matter – this book I must confess, has constituted my constant reference point for the analysis developed in this Focus– that investigates groups strategies from the 60s to the present through a series of tools such as interviews to group members, a glossary of group working, a collection of quotations around this concept and a list of art groups that functions as a brief historical record; and at last the event ‘Gathering In, Gathering Around’ organized by Casco Project with the aim to enliven a self-reflection on Casco’s practice starting from a reinterpretation of the group archive in order to put into question the concept of “common”.

Enjoy the reading.

Valerio Del Baglivo