Practicable by Samuel Bianchini and Erik Verhagen (editors)


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The distinguishing feature of arts that are ‘practicable’ is their “capacity to accommodate the concrete involvement of their viewers and to generate an activity that may transform the works themselves as well as their audience” (1). At the basis of this relationship is a series of processes or operations that make it necessary to negotiate new types of relationships between subject and object. Banchini and Verhagen then ask the questions: what happens to the aesthetic experience and must a work be used to be appreciated? They go on to identify pitfalls such as the opposition of contemplation and action. When the former is absorbed into the latter will there be a dynamic “like that of the culture industries and entertainment, whose spearhead is now the video game? It is art that is at issue here, but art within a problematic that cannot be divorced from a societal context increasingly conditioned by the exponential growth of information technology since the advent of cybernetics” (2).

Banchini and Verhagen introduce an historical element into the discussion. The 1940s and 1950s conceived of artwork as autonomous and self-contained. Developments since then rely on a model that renegotiates the intersubjective relations that link subject and object. They write of practicable approaches as “being-through-others” since they are dealing with a reformulation of the identity of the artwork that has grown out of modernity. “Effects. Events. Openings. Participation. Relationships. These are all terms that enable us to assimilate practicable approaches to a philosophy of action since…action is ‘never possible in isolation’” (7).

Practicable art reflects a desire to enrich the aesthetic experience by involving the viewer physically, give him more responsibility, and privilege the relational process over the object. This brings to mind the well-known Rhythm O performance of Marina Abramovicz (described on 479ff) on February 11, 1975. Abramovicz made available objects that the Neapolitan public could use on her as people wished. She would assume full responsibility. When the experiment began the artist, dressed in jeans and black T-shirt, refused to make eye contact and remained completely silent. The visiting public took little action in the early part of the performance. It was reported that in the first hour or two someone circled the performer while someone else raised her arm. As time progressed she is tied up with ropes, someone drew on the floor with thick cream, and a pendant is hung around her neck. Later still people became more aggressive. Her clothes were cut up with razor blades, her breasts completely exposed, graffiti was written on her body, and rose petals stuck to her nipples. What eventuated from this point became more animalistic in scope, but will not be described here. “the artist puts herself forward as an example…to show others that they can transcend their own limits” (486).

The book is replete with examples, not necessarily as dramatic as Rhythm O.  Lygia Clark’s use of a Mobius strip in her participatory work Caminhando facilitated a transition from the geometric language of Neo-Concretism from which other important works such as her Cocoons in 1959 and, most intricate of all, her hinged Bichos that suddenly multiply topological surfaces through proliferating planes that unfold and transform each work as it is manipulated (423), derived.

The examples I have given are pioneering works that have led to an enormous number of participatory art pieces. The editors of the book bring the work into the present through distinguishing digital art from computer art, and then discussing the effect of information technology on participatory art. This is a huge book and this review cannot possibly give it full justice. I began by wading through a veritable forest of new ideas, but having grasped the concepts and taken on board the lessons of the case studies I felt I was on much firmer ground. The book ends with particularly valuable interviews.

Certainly one of the great books of the ages is the view I came away with. Highly recommended to all with an interest in art.

Practicable: from Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art


By Samuel Bianchini and Erik Verhagen (editors)

The MIT Press

ISBN: 978-0-262-03475-3

$US50.00; 952pp (cloth)

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