Issue 1 │ Zugänglichkeit

 

Accessibility, Access, and Affordance:

The Amplitude of Participatory Art

Suzana Milevska

 

 

 

 

The issue of accessibility has been already addressed in many different discussions about the reasoning behind the phenomenon of participatory art. Accessibility together with inclusivity and democratisation of museums is regarded as one of the most pertinent motivations and goals that prompted the emergence and development of various participatory art practices that aim to induce social change. (Milevska 2016: 19–20) 

This essay intends to make clearer the links between the issues of accessibility, lack of access and affordance through several theoretical arguments, personal empirical observations and with one example of a participatory art project that focused on accessibility and access. I want to argue that while the hindered accessibility to art institutions is inevitably interwoven within the main rationale of participatory art practices, the lack of access to societal and political means, infrastructures and protocols is even more relevant for the emergence of participatory art, such are representation and participation in decision making via voting, deliberation, and other democratic processes. However, although the ultimate amplitude of such art projects is undisputed, I also aim to challenge the assumption that participatory art could resolve such complex socio-political, economic and gender issues by default.                  

The fact that the aims of participatory art projects are not related to the need to openly discuss and change only art institutions and their limitations, but are also deeply rooted in the need to analyse and criticise the socio-political systemic structures and contexts underlines the challenges, contradictions and obstacles that are generated when participatory artists create participatory art which is supposedly not confined to elitist and professional goals but is yet produced within that very system. (Gregorič and Milevska 2017: 10–27)            

Let’s now look closer at some of these conundrums starting from Irit Rogoff’s contentious distinction between access and accessibility. Rogoff detected a certain tension between these two while aiming to clarify at least some of these contradictions and she assertively argued in favour of shifting the focus from the term accessibility towards access:

 

For some time now I have struggled with trying to understand how we, in the art world, might be able to shift from a dictated imperative to provide accessibility to displayed culture, to another possibility, one of forging through it, some form of access to the culture at large. (Rogoff 2013: 71)

 

In Rogoff’s view the notion of access is more productive than accessibility. According to her, accessibility rather hinders one of the key motives for trying to involve more people in the arts in the first place – to turn them into active agents in the conversations about art and culture.

 

In part this has followed on from a democratizing impulse of inclusiveness, of trying to find ways in which ‘everyone’, regardless of origins or particularities, might have an entrée into culture. This has gone hand in hand with the politics of representation and the desire to bring into representation those who might have not seen themselves easily mirrored within mainstream or hegemonic culture. (Rogoff 2013: 71)

 

The main reason for the need to focus on access rather than on accessibility according to Rogoff is that accessibility assumes that inclusion and representation necessarily mean ‘this kind of process by which one sees oneself and one’s identity group reflected in culture and therefore taking up a rightful place within it’ (Rogoff 2013: 71) and that it’s concerning the assumption that art needs mediation and translation because these groups seem to be undermined as they are regarded as less knowledgeable of contemporary art by default:

 

Accessibility also assumes that beyond the politics of representation we also have a commitment to translate that which goes on outside the spaces of display directly into them – that we need to ensure, through these strategies of inclusion, translation, representation, and easy access, that our visitor numbers and visitor satisfaction measurements meet the required targets. At the heart of accessibility is the model of a client-based relationship with consumers who know what they want and can evaluate their satisfaction from it. Within such a set of relations there is no room for the unexpected, the speculative, or the seductive. (Rogoff 2013: 71)

 

Therefore, for Rogoff the tension between accessibility and access results from the fact that the ‘first instrumentalizes the second, turning it into a simple system by which you can consume rather than experience’. (Rogoff 2013: 72) For this she blames the ‘nostalgic desire that persists through conventional opposition between creativity and institutions in a classical modernist mode’. (Rogoff 2013: 72) and continues with even harsher criticism of the instrumentalization of accessibility:

 

While there is probably not much harm in such backward-looking approaches, they block any newly forged understanding that we are living out a complex entanglement of practices in which it is almost impossible to chart the boundaries between imagining, making, theorizing, questioning, displaying, being enthralled by,

administrating, and translating. (Rogoff 2013: 72)

 

Regardless of how convincingly Rogoff issues her calls for shifting of the paradigms through and within the work in joint experiences of the makers, displayers, and viewers and regardless of how relevant her warnings are that such shifts are entirely lost by overemphasising the calls to accessibility[1], such theoretical and high-brow discussion about the semantic difference between the two terms might sound patronising and tone-deaf. Discussing the issue of accessibility with individuals and communities that struggle to gain not only accessibility but also any visibility, recognition and representation in the art context and cultural institutions would be particularly problematic. This is not the same as saying that Rogoff’s arguments are not compelling and valid for the self-indulgent art world. However, given the current institutional conditionality that is a result of the hierarchical systemic structures and the unchallenged contentious historic, material and narrative heritage all too many individuals and communities are not entitled and/or capable to join end enjoy ‘the unexpected, the speculative, or the seductive’ (Rogoff 2013: 71). Rather even if they joined the discussion could be futile and the tension between accessibility and access cannot occur simply because neither of them exists from the outset.[2]  

In this respect, what is lacking from Rogoff’s generalised analysis is the contextualisation of her critique and how the issue of accessibility differs depending on different ethnic, gender, class or other contexts such as disability, sexuality, citizenship status, etc. A more precise socio-political positioning is needed of such a critical analysis of the emancipatory potentials of art projects that focus on accessibility, and not only in cultural terms, but also in the context of education, art production, decision making of cultural policies, etc. In context of the discussion of the intertwinement and the tensions between accessibility and access due to the neoliberal crisis of identity politics and the limitations that it imposes to accidental encounters and enthusiastic relations necessary for creative artistic processes the acknowledgement of the class, ethnic and gender hierarchies that prevent such reciprocal processes from happening at first place makes Rogoff’s analysis only a one-way street and does not explain the various stages of emancipation of the different groups in need of accessibility and eventually access to art debates and production.                                                           

Jacques Rancière’s definition of emancipation as an ‘encounter between two heterogeneous processes’ (Rancière  1995: 63) could be helpful for an understanding of the more complex but relevant tension, the one between accessibility and emancipation. The first process for Rancière is the one of governance. It assumes a creation of community that relies on distribution of shares, hierarchies of positions and functions. This is what Rancière calls ‘policy’. The second process is the one of equality, multitude of practices that starts from the assumption that everybody is equal and aims to prove this assumption. (Rancière  1995: 63) Undoubtedly ignoring or undermining the pre-existing societal hierarchies doesn’t help and the access would be futile anyway. Therefore, the acknowledgement that there are many participatory art projects that think together the issues of accessibility and access could help in overcoming the generalised theoretical discussion about the tension between the two. (Tunali 2017: 67-75) Artists as Tania Bruguera, Tanja Ostojić, Tadej Pogačar, Alfred Ulrich, Carmen Papalia, the collectives Chto Delat, Etcetera and Assemble, or the Project Row Houses have all engaged with issues as accessibility and access to art, education, freedom of movement and citizenship in the context of different communities – e. g. refugees, sex-workers, African-Americans or Roma, homeless, etc. However, without any prejudices they also address how different socio-political contexts that determine the hierarchical relations and intersections of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, race, or capability hinder the access to otherwise available contents. Thus, accessibility and access are reciprocal and mutually co-dependent.     

One of the art projects that in my view addressed both aspects in a subtle and suggestible way was Dan Perjovschi’s Room Drawing from 2006 – a project that was ‘installed’ in the Members’ Room at Tate Modern.[3] This particular project is close to my heart not only because of its hands-on approach and potentials to reveal the existing hierarchies in different corners of the art world but also because as a PhD student in London while already being an experienced curator in my home country, North Macedonia, I’ve been experiencing these hierarchies exactly during that period (between 2001 and 2006) – and most directly and paradoxically I’ve found out that my curatorial credentials were not valid in the UK. While the openings back home were free of charge and accessible to everybody (it was the period of a slow transition between socialist and neoliberal economy, so culture was completely non-commercial) and were publicised without any privileges and hidden agendas, in London I could hardly attend any art event.[4] Without a special personal invitation, paid institutional membership, or expensive tickets for which the long waiting list was also an obstacle it was simply impossible to attend any official opening of an exhibition, conference, performance, etc. Thus, the unique and successful participatory effect of Perjovschi’s project, at least in my view, consisted exactly of the given opportunity to non-members to enter this elitist and prestigious membership-based ‘club’ (the single annual membership costs £90).

For the duration of the exhibition, Perjovschi turned the walls of the Members’ Room into surfaces for his renowned signature ‘murals’ – black and white graffiti consisting of many combined cartoon-like drawings and texts. Perjovschi’s project was a rare opportunity for the artist not only to meet the professionals and members of Tate Modern but also to mingle with the members of the general audience. However, even today all you can read on Tate Modern’s web site about the project is: ‘Treating the walls of Tate Modern’s Members’ Room as a blank canvas, Dan Perjovschi creates a witty, provocative and occasionally cutting social commentary, using drawing to deal with socially relevant issues. His work follows the tradition of political cartoonists’ drawings which link humorous observations of everyday life with ironic commentary.’ (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/dan-perjovschi-room-drawing-2006) No mention of the open doors of the otherwise secluded space, nor about the new protocols of communication and relationships that were forged in the course of the project.[5]          

In the centre of the discussion about accessibility and access is the urgent need to challenge the received assumption that art is not obliged to deliver truth, but it rather constructs it. Even when it aspires toward grasping certain truths art’s main role is not necessarily linked to ontology, gnoseology, epistemology, and critical thinking in general. Art rather clings to its hermeneutical, representational and creative role. Such definitions of art imply that neither art aims to reveal some kind of absolute truth, nor it is about delivering truthful facts regarding various world phenomena. The main rationale behind this argument is the paradox stemming from such a definition of art that still prevails in different contexts in contrast to the social-practice based art and the political activist art that dominate the current non-commercial art scene. According to Trenton Merricks’ critique of the theory of ‘Truthmaker’ its assumption that each truth has a truthmaker is problematic because it assumes that ‘for each claim that is true, there is some entity that, by its mere existence, makes that claim true’.[6] (Merricks 2007: xiii) For Merricks not each truth depends substantively on being, but rather ‘making true’ means that: x makes p true only if, necessarily, if both x and p exist, then p is true. (Merricks 2007: xiv) Merricks therefore introduces a certain ‘conditional necessitarianism’ and explores the question of whether and how the truth ‘depends on the world’. (Merricks 2007: xiii)

In this respect one could conclude that truth exists and can be revealed and accessed as long as the accessibility and access to it exist for all: for the artists, the institutions and for all sorts of different audiences, either individuals or communities that are at various stages of understanding of art, and this is true regardless to how complex and opaque the meaning of art is.                                                                                                                                   

For various reasons, art comprises and is capable of powers that are not affordable to the state and political centres of power. I want to argue that truth as a social construct that is controlled by the societal structures of power can and should be tackled by various artistic strategies, but it takes a carefully extrapolated and targeted approach towards the stratified audiences and communities. The amplitude and affordance of art for addressing even the most uncomfortable truths about our society are relational.[7] (Gibson 1979: 127) It’s safe to state that the affordance of art depends on accessibility. Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of art is definitely one of these uncomfortable truths and both accessibility and access to art and its institutions should be rethought and reassessed time and again. Participatory art is definitely one of the artistic practices that aims to such reassessment and does it with bigger or lesser success. The current deceptive mechanisms that grind and shape truth on levels that were extremely difficult to anticipate and imagine in the pre-internet and pre-social networks era are mechanisms that are and have been affordable to artists by default. Moreover, by questioning the offered and received truths and by producing new truths and knowledges the participatory art and artistic research are capable of drawing relevant intersections between the ontological, epistemological and gnoseological role of art and thus redefining it.

            The promise of participatory art is fundamentally based on the need to surpass and overcome this misgiving between the general audience and the art world. However, while on the one hand aiming to open the art institutions towards a more profound involvement of art audiences in the process of artistic practices and productions, on the other hand such tendency towards participation can produce new distinctions and ’elites’ because of the too general invitation to the audiences in different levels of direct involvement without taking into account the multi-layered and stratified audience.                                                                        

Such differentiation of audiences can lead towards developing more diversified art and cultural policies among curators and art administrators but also towards a greater awareness among the ‘elitist’ museum and gallery audiences of the existence of other publics and participants. Yet the issues of access and accessibility remain fundamental for even starting to think the diverse structure of the audience exactly because the accessibility is as complex as the audiences that need the access.

 

Suzana Milevska is a visual culture theorist and curator. Her theoretical and curatorial interests include postcolonial critique of the hegemonic power regimes of representation, gender theory  and feminism as well as participatory, collaborative and research-based art practices. Currently she is Principal Investigator at the Politecnico di  Milano (TRACES, Horizon 2020). From 2013 to 2015 she was the Endowed Professor for  Central and South Eastern European Art Histories at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, 
where she also taught at the Visual Culture Unit of the Technical University. Milevska was Fulbright Senior Research Scholar at the Library of Congress (2004). In 2012, Milevska won the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory.

                                                                                   

References

Gibson, James J., 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Gregorič, Alenka and Milevska, Suzana, 2017.  Inside Out: Critical Art Practices That Challenge the Art System and Its Institutions. In: Gregorič, Alenka and Milevska, Suzana (eds.): Inside-Out Critical Discourses Concerning Institutions. Ljubljana: City Art Gallery

 

Heller, Hannah, 2017. Whiteness and Museum Education. In: Best Practices, Culture, Heritage, & Identity, Educational Environment. The Incluseum - Inclusion | Museums. December 14, 2017, https://incluseum.com/2017/12/14/whiteness-and-museum-education/ (visited 23 March 2021)

McLean Ferris, Lana, 2014. Visual Cultures as Seriousness by Gavin Butt and Irit Rogoff. In: Art Review. 10 July 2014 https://artreview.com/april-2014-book-review-visual-cultures-as-seriousness-by-gavin-buttirit-rogoff/ (visited 23 March 2021)

 

Merricks, Trenton, 2007. Truth and Ontology. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press

Milevska, Suzana, 2018. Infelicitous: Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage. In: P/art/icipate: Kulturaktiv gestalten, Vol. 7, October 2016. www.p-art-icipate.net/cms/infelicitous-participatory-acts-on-the-neoliberal-stage, pp. 19-30 (visited 23 March 2021)

Perjovschi, Dan, 2006. The Room Drawing, curator: Maeve Polkinhorn, 25 March-23 June 2006, London, Tate Modern. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/dan-perjovschi-room-drawing-2006 (visited 23 March 2021)

Rancière, Jacques, 1995. Politics, Identification and Subjectivization. In: Rajchman, John (ed.): The Identity in Question. New York and London: Routledge

Rogoff, Irit, 2013. On Being Serious in the Art World. In: Butt, Gavin and Rogoff, Irit: Visual Cultures as Seriousness. Berlin: StenbergPress  

Tunalı, Tijen, 2017. The Paradoxical Engagement of Contemporary Art with Activism and Protest. In: Bonham-Carter, Charlotte and Mann, Nicola (eds.): Rhetoric, Social Value and the Arts. But How Does it Work? London: Palgrave McMillan

Milevska_Perjovschi_1.JPG

Image above and below:
Dan Perjovschi, The Room Drawing, 2006, Members' Room, TATE Modern, London,  25 March-23 June, 2006, Courtesy of the artist

Milevska_Perjovschi_2.JPG

Endnotes

[1] The Art Review published a very positive, but short review of the book ‘Visual Cultures as Seriousness’ that didn’t question the contentiousness of some of Rogoff’s claims: McLean Ferris, Lana, 2014. Visual Cultures as Seriousness by Gavin Butt and Irit Rogoff. In: Art Review. 10 July 2014visited 20.03.2021  https://artreview.com/april-2014-book-review-visual-cultures-as-seriousness-by-gavin-buttirit-rogoff/ (visited 23 March 2021)

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[2] Heller, Hannah, 2017. Whiteness and Museum Education. In: Best Practices, Culture, Heritage, & Identity, Educational Environment, The Incluseum - Inclusion | Museums. December 14, 2017  https://incluseum.com/2017/12/14/whiteness-and-museum-education/ (visited 23 March 2021)

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[3] The short description of the project and a video recording of the talk with the artist are still accessible online: Perjovschi, Dan, 2006. The Room Drawing, curator Maeve Polkinhorn, 25 March-23 June 2006, London, Tate Modern. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/dan-perjovschi-room-drawing-2006 (visited 23 March 2021)

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[4] Perhaps this doesn’t apply to Perjovschi as a native Romanian, but for a completely other reason: The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest is based in the Palace of the Parliament or People’s Palace – Nicolae Ceausescu’s building that is one of the largest and most guarded and inaccessible museum buildings in the world.

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[5] In one of the several emails during the correspondence I had with the artist about this project for this particular essay Perjovschi wrote: ‘Members’ Room is exclusive to the 80.000 members, but they do not come all at once [...]  and it's basically a coffee shop (coffee, sandwiches and sweets and champagne) not open for everybody. And here was the deal. I asked and got permission to open the Members’ Room (5th floor I think but not sure) for everybody the whole week (except on Saturday and Sunday when usually it is full because of the splendid terrace). I had to talk with the Tate director of flux of people (can u believe it?) because of opening for the public to the floor (and elevator) reserved usually for members card holders.’ (email from Dan Perjovschi, 26 March 2021)

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[6] For a more precise definition of the concept ‘Truthmaker’ as it is defined in philosophy see: Merricks, Trenton, 2007. Truth and Ontology. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press.

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[7] The concept of affordance in art and culture was coined by James J. Gibson and first appeared in his 1966 book ‘The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems’.

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