Is This How Participation Goes?

Is This How Participation Goes?

Nikos Papastergiadis and Danielle Wyatt

If the neoliberal regime is a constitutive force in a decentered and globalizing world, then what is the starting point for determining its flows, and what is its impact on art and culture? Conversely, have we not also seen art swell and expand through new kinds of transnational collaborations that are giving aesthetic form to cosmopolitan ideals? Are artists at the vanguard of the resistance against the gaping inequalities threatening to rip apart the social fabric or are they, despite their democratising intentions, an extension of an invidious system? These contradictory forces are played out on many fronts and with divergent inflections. In this brief essay we sketch out the hydraulic tensions between the corporate global culture and mass cultural participation by focusing on recent events in Melbourne. As a second-tier global city, celebrated for its livability and cultural vitality, the development of Melbourne’s cultural scene over the last fifteen years exemplifies the various spatial formations around which aesthetic experience is being organized and redistributed.

We can witness the expanding aestheticization of urban life on multiple fronts. An inventory of the aesthetic environment today might begin with the body itself as a site of artistic activity, a surface for body art, and host for wearable media delivered in miniaturized, personalized form. Domestic space, now infiltrated by screens and platforms of media exchange, is also an incubator for the production and circulation of aesthetic content. In galleries and cultural institutions – the traditional sites of the aesthetic experience – art has burst out of the sanctified interiors, into the more pedestrian spaces of forecourts and foyers, at the same time as commercial and community activity has moved in. In cities, art is being imagined and programmed at an urban scale rather than at the unit scale of the building or institution. The precinct, the street, the night-time economy, are the vehicles for aesthetic transmission in the creative city – activated through programs and festivals, punctuated with screens, illuminated, curated, networked and overlaid with cultural content in hybrid physical/digital environments. At the more abstract scale of the global market and the imagined community, art is being denationalized through new forms of partnering between iconic institutions and corporate brands. The ‘biennialization’ of art and major art fairs like Art Basel, bypass the national and shape markets and regimes of taste through a franchise model, with both local and transnational effects.

Growing quantities of cultural data tell us that as a public, we are less likely to experience a one-on-one encounter with art in the confines of an elite institution, than we are to find ourselves participants within a multi-perspectival, digitally networked aesthetic field – the street, the square, the festival, the community garden. In these porous, outdoor settings, our aesthetic encounter might be layered with social and commercial exchange, and might shift between background and foreground, focused attention and distraction, mediation and immediacy.[1] Art here is more liquid than solid. And as with any liquid, the terms for relating are fluid and immersive. Art becomes more of a messy participatory medium, and less a pure object of contemplation. It moves and forms around and upon us, it suffuses spaces between and through us, responsive, interactive, connective and intimate, but also elusive and invested, entangled with a multitude of invisible forces.

The general transformations of urban culture are always manifest in specific ways. In Melbourne these hydraulic tensions are evident in both generative and reactionary efforts, the former apparent through a taxonomy of expansionary flows. In a range of artistic and independent curatorial initiatives we witness a trickling of small gestures and ephemeral events that intersperse with the rhythms of everyday life such as NiteArt and Mapping Melbourne. In a more sustained streaming of art and urbanity we also enjoy a wide range of streamed programs such as Big West Festival; White Night; and Gertrude Projection Festival. The major art institutions, such as the National Gallery of Victoria (or NGV), are also bursting out of their traditional envelopes in order to engage new audiences, cross over disciplinary boundaries, and activate the thresholds that separate their hallowed interiors and the street. The concentration of the major arts institutions in a significant arts precinct, and the unprecedented popularity of events in the new Federation Square represent a sizable and highly visible damning of art and culture. Increasingly, major institutions want to be seen as central destinations for all the streams of artistic experimentation and production. Finally, Qantas – a national corporate sponsor – has struck a deal with MCA Gallery and global icon, Tate Modern, to mark its most profitable commercial route: Sydney to London. So, making an alignment with an institution beneath the register of the national (like the NGV or National Gallery) and one that operates in the unbounded domain of the contemporary. This denationalizing of civic support for art, even from a national corporate sponsor, represents an evaporation of art and art publics from the boundaries of the nation state.

White Night, National Gallery of Victoria. Image: Steven Collis, Flickr.

However, while Melbourne boasts of its convivial outlook and an outstanding commitment to building arts infrastructure, the sustainability of the wider ecology is in a far more precarious state. At the most local level, the displacing consequences of gentrification have forced Gertrude Contemporary, a gallery and residency space for emerging artists, to move from inner city Fitzroy to outer suburban Preston. Artists generally are being driven from the inner city due to rising property prices and the unaffordability of living and studio space. As a consequence, the metropolitan center where art is most lauded and consumed is increasingly quarantined from the places it is being made. For a city that takes such pride in its cultural heritage, and celebrates the visual literacy of its citizens in a media rich environment, Melbourne showed a poverty of imagination when we accepted the conversion of our old media center, the General Post Office, into a shopping mall for global brand H&M. More recently we also succumbed to the distorted economic logic by which the State government justified the usurpation of the heart of our public arts precinct for an Apple concept store. Nationally, the current conservative Federal Government led a campaign to put minorities back in their place by constricting the legal protection of section 18c in the Racial Discrimination Act, which right-wing white elites saw as a threat to their freedom of speech. The Federal Minister for the Arts launched a brazen raid on the Australia Council, the national arts funding body, withdrawing almost half its funds from peer assessment and thus politicizing the independence of aesthetic evaluation. When artists boycotted Sydney’s 2016 Biennale to protest its corporate sponsorship by a company managing Australia’s offshore detention centers, the Prime Minister did not restrain his contempt for these ‘ungrateful’ artists. And in the corporate sector the idea of philanthropy has been occupied by a market logic which controls the return on investment, and includes the contractual right to retract support when art touches sensitive issues. Here, the Potter Foundation’s rejection of the Soda_Jerk commission, Terror Nullius, as ‘un-Australian’ is a salient example.

These are obvious examples of the reactionary barricading against the need for a new cross-cultural and aesthetic public discourse, and re-territorializing the spheres of cultural production. Beyond this specific artistic resistance and public protestation, there is, at the same time, a pervasive lack of trust in governmental accountability. This has undermined the willingness of publics to engage in more nuanced debates around the uses and value of culture. The public reaction to these threats and opportunities is uncertain: at best, we respond most clearly when we are defending a residual public space; and at worst, we have never really learnt how to speak to an emergent public spirit. In this time of expanding aesthetic flows in everyday life and reactionary assaults both on and from within public art institutions, there seems to be very little that connects the fluid and solid forms of art and culture.

The inadequacy of the contemporary public discourse for the current climate can be captured by characterizing the two prevailing attitudes. On one hand, there is a normative complaint that yearns for the reclamation of artistic autonomy and institutional authority. On the other, there is a celebratory optimism that the arts can survive as a fit and able competitor in a regime of the spectacle. Hence, the normative wish “that the hell we live in today is momentary,” is accompanied by a plaintive request for the reinstatement of the welfarist model. By contrast, well-meaning arts advocates load the air with bathetic statements about the inspirational role of art, defensively pointing to the economic benefit of an inclusive culture, demonstrating that more people are employed in the cultural industry than they are in agriculture, and that the arts have a productive role in tourism. In the bottomless process of either defending bad old pedagogic hierarchies or justifying bad new instrumental uses of art, the space for thinking through the consequences of the aestheticization of everyday life recedes from public discourse.

In their rush to assume branded visibility as interactive stations in global culture, museums, like Melbourne’s NGV and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art have also increasingly distanced themselves from the Enlightenment ideals that were meant to serve as mechanisms for elevating the bourgeois public sphere. Such museums have adopted a spectacular formula of providing high-end consumerism, dynamic articulations of public-private relationships, and exclusive hospitality for targeted groups that are feted in pre-public events. Through these institutional alignments the arts and cultural sector are now explicitly engaged in wider frameworks of economic competitiveness and soft diplomacy. Alongside these structural transformations there are the communicative revolutions that have promised an illusory life in the “infinite present” of endless consumption.[2] The authority of the traditional arts institution is still significant and disproportionate to where participation actually happens. But in competition for attention in the new event economy, the public institution is often overtaken by the massive growth in private museums. In this complex ecology there is no monopoly on civic virtue and cultural knowledge. Public museums are often trapped between nostalgia and anxiety, leading to a nervous oscillation that Jimmie Durham described as being akin to “inventing new dance steps with the desperation that looks like energy.”[3]

Given that the expanded front of aesthetic experience is now a central feature of our cultural landscape, what are the tools, vocabulary, and perspectives that can be deployed to make sense of it? In the ‘eventful city’ and ‘creative city’ agendas galleries are incorporating ‘eventfulness’ and spectacle into their programming, pairing exhibitions with live performance, night parties and urban banquets. While there is ample statistical evidence suggesting that these strategies animate collections and spaces, and bring new audiences into an encounter with art, we question the democratic claims made about this new participatory moment. Does the participation on offer provide this diverse but increasingly divided community a genuine opportunity to script for themselves a narrative of identity and belonging, or forge meaningful cross-cultural bonds?

Our scepticism is related to the observation that this new participatory culture has no broader institutional reality. The zeitgeist for participation has not taken root conceptually or curatorially within a comprehensive picture of the contemporary cultural scene. The teeming nature of contemporary cultural participation poses particular challenges for policy and public funding for culture-led urban redevelopment. Part of the reason for this policy blind-spot is the difficulty of capturing this kind of participation within established evaluation and measurement frameworks.[4] Current measurement tools were designed for cultural experiences within the enclosed space of the institution. Visitation levels and an aggregation of individuated satisfaction rankings constitute the primary methods of evaluation, data directed largely at the managerial perspectives of funders and board-members, to affirm a narrow set of indicators of public value. The expanded front of aesthetic encounter requires more nimble and qualitative approaches. For contemporary aesthetic experiences to have visibility and public value, evaluation needs to capture more than attendance and visitor satisfaction. New tools need to be developed to illuminate how contemporary public environments – porous, networked, programmed – are interacting with new forms of arts and curatorial practice, and how this is being experienced by a heterogeneous and mobile public. Methods need to enquire into the qualitative nature of these experiences – their significance and meaning – rather than assuming that participation is rendered legible and meaningful through numbers alone.

The failure to measure and communicate the value of contemporary cultural participation is also the result of a more fundamental unsettling of the very terms through which Western democracies have historically understood and valued the arts and culture. On one hand, an expansion of the aesthetic front marks the unbundling of a cultural matrix of bourgeois subjectivity, institutional autonomy, and the primacy of the artist as creative producer. On the other, art has become more entangled with the massed and micro-experiences of commodified and community life.

To date, the available responses to this aporia have been either a defensive reclamation of the normative positions, or justification of competitiveness. A third, post-normative position recognizes that the new literacies around cultural value must emerge from an openness to and curiosity about the aesthetics of contemporary cultural participation itself. This position requires considering how participation itself might reconfigure aesthetics and pedagogy from below. The consequence of failing to account for the expansion of cultural participation today is that art becomes yet another commodity to gratify the instincts of the narcissistic prosumer. This is a position we fall into by default, not because mass participants are vacuous, and the dominant institutions are cynical, but because the real dynamics of participation escape our scrutiny and elude our critical vocabulary. Without a broader toolkit of evaluative and critical approaches we cannot call out participation that is hollow or co-opted. And worse, we lack the capacity to cultivate the possibilities of new coalitions and forms of commonality. We live in a culture that has come to see its ideal self reflected in terms of mobility, movement and flow. But for flows to nourish and to nurture, they must also have vessels.


Nikos Papastergiadis is Professor at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His current research focuses on the investigation of the historical transformation of contemporary art and cultural institutions by digital technology. His sole authored publications include Modernity as Exile (1993), Dialogues in the Diaspora (1998), The Turbulence of Migration (2000), Metaphor and Tension (2004) Spatial Aesthetics: Art Place and the Everyday (2006), Cosmopolitanism and Culture (2012), Ambient Perspectives (2013) as well as being the editor of over 10 collections, author of numerous essays which have been translated into over a dozen languages and appeared in major catalogues such as the Biennales of Sydney, Liverpool, Istanbul, Gwanju, Taipei, Lyon, Thessaloniki and Documenta 13. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and co-chair of the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture, Chair of the International Advisory Board for the Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore, and Visiting Professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Danielle Wyatt is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her current research can be found in New Media and Society and City, Culture and Society. She is the co-author of the book, Public Libraries in the Smart City, to be published by Palgrave in 2018.  


[1] Papastergiadis, Nikos, Amelia Barikin and Scott McQuire (2016) Conclusion: Ambient Screens. In Nikos Papastergiadis, ed, Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Spaces. HKU Press: Hong Kong.

[2] Esche, C. & Boja-Villel, M. (2016) “Use, Knowledge, Art, and History: A Conversation between Charles Esche and Manuel Borja-Villel, inWhat’s the Use?  eds Aiken, N, Lange, T, Seijdel, J,  ten Thije, S, Valiz: Amsterdam, p 409.

[3] Durham, J. (2011) “Before the Law: Jimmie Durham in conversation with Kasper Konig” Brussels, Wiels, September 16, 2011.

[4] Miles, Andrew and Lisanne Gibson (2016) Everyday participation and cultural value. Cultural Trends, 25:3, 151-157