Gianfranco Mirizzi: “No, seriously, why are you telling me about this participatory thing?”

It is not only the audience, the public that attends to arts venues, such as exhibitions, events, educational or divulgative gatherings (for not talking about auctions and art fairs) that is relatively small in numbers – it is commonly estimated in about 10% of the overall population. Also, the internal distribution of economical resources inside the art world follows quite snobbish dynamics so that, for making an example, traditional arts, whether visual or performative, whether sculpture or opera, whether painting or ballet, appear as areas of privileged concentration of attention, energies and values inside the art world itself, receiving a privileged concentration of public and private investments as well. Whether this is due to a disproportioned respect toward a glorious past or to the importance of preserving a noble tradition, to a powerful political and cultural dominance or simple commercial values, yet to a conservative ideology, it does not really matter. It is of interest here that the economical distribution of resources in art – and with economics it is intended the complex system of relations of exchange, not simplistically the money that are used to representing it – is unevenly elitist, that is, it doesn’t follow logics of production or interest, rather relations of charismatic dominance or, which is the same, “political” ascendancy.

In such context the Corners project might suggest some peculiar reflections.

Corners is a cultural initiative of a Sweden non-profit cultural organisation named Intercult, in partnership with other similar organisations across EU. Such partnerships are mandatory or highly recommended for any project aiming to intercept European funding, not necessarily regarding the arts field. The proposal for the Corners project was accepted and funded by the European Union, if I understood correctly, for the period 2010-2012. At that point the partnership counted only 6 members, and that was probably the reason why in 2013 a proposal of prolongation of the project didn’t convince the EU, and was rejected. The project had a stop for one year.

After the European Commission voted for a new Cultural Program in 2013, approving an unexpected bill of 1,5 billion Euros for the period 2014-2020 (considering the financial cuts in every sector and especially in the cultural one, due to the European economic crisis, this can be considered impressive), Corners regained a chance for being re-approved, and of course refinanced.

Corners was strengthened, doubling the partner associations collaborating at the project (the partnership counting now up to 12 members, if I’m correct) and empowering its strategies, goals and objective, which shifted from being mostly experimental and finalised to research, to being more pragmatic, finalised to concrete productions of works of art, events or interventions.

The project came back into the game and was financed up to 2017. Corners entered in a new phase of development.

If one knows a little bit about the sophisticated bureaucracy of European institutions, might notice that every EU open call involves a series of requisites that sound much as buzzwords rather than real, effective or functional strategies. Words as participation, sustainability, integration, cooperation, development, new technologies, whatever they mean (and for sure they mean a lot of different things), are amazingly omnipresent. The metre for measuring such components in a project is objectively unidentifiable (especially in an art project), nevertheless it is required by the EU, so often the applicants themselves have to identify the way their goals are reachable and to quantify the results. It is like asking a high school student to give herself a vote for her homework. Last, but not least, the reputation of the applicant makes a lot of difference. An applicant who already has won an European open call is more likely to win another one, which makes sense since an institution that has already developed a project in the past is going, at least in theory, to develop and extend it in the next project, obtaining an added value.

You are perhaps lost, wondering where all this speculation about art elitism, Corner successful/unsuccessful/successful applications and EU agreeable/questionable bureaucracy is leading.

Most probably nowhere.

I’m just following the free flow of my thoughts, since I was asked to write this blog post in replacement of someone else who managed to avoid it. And I’m doing it at the worst of my possibilities, after two weeks of journeying, far away from the quiet of my studio, far away from my books and my archive, unable to check eventually the references of what I’m saying, feeling extremely tired and most probably even sick.

But I’m optimistically confident some useful elements of institutional critique would emerge from it.

Also, I have the privilege to write the last post of the last Corners Xpedition, so it makes sense to me to attempt a kind of personal evaluation of the project overall, whatever the organisers or the EU might think.

As an artist invited to take part to the Corners project, I’ve been requested some, if not all, of the objectives mentioned above: participation, cooperation, collaboration, expanded audiences, integration of the minorities, work in public spaces, that is, work among the people for the people, and so on.

Obviously these are to me amazing and outstanding objectives, and not only to me, I believe.

Which artist wouldn’t aspire to reach even an infinitesimal part of such admirable objectives in her work?

The problem is that such objectives are also the most challenging goals that art, and any other human activity (what about politics? or science? or economics?), might achieve.

Art possesses its own intrinsic specificity, its internal logic, it is a system, perhaps a social system as Niklas Luhmann called it.

As any system, it works with logics that cannot be forced artificially – through a particle accelerator or any other machine – or manipulated – trough hybridisation of genetics.

It is OK to ask an artist to make a work of art with certain features embedded in it, but expecting that those features are satisfied entirely like in an algebraic formula is unreasonable.

All the greatest masterpieces of the past were more the result of a subtle form of rebellion, the vision of the artist against the requirements of commissioners and society, than otherwise. The ability of the artist wasn’t that of satisfying the commissioner’s desires, but that of satisfying the internal needs of the artwork and let the commissioner believe the work was exactly what requested. Sometimes it worked beautifully, making Benito Mussolini accept as a canon for fascist architecture, one of the most visionary rationalist (which at the time meant also socialist) architectures of Giuseppe Terragni. Sometimes it didn’t work like in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement (whose naked figures went repainted) or in many of Caravaggio’s paintings (refused by commissioners because too dark).

Coming back to participation, taking it as a concrete example, we can take advantage of the lesson of Allan Kaprow, who spent his entire artistic life in seeking ways for engaging his audience through genuine participation, only to make him assert that truly genuine participation in art is barely reachable and perhaps even impossible to obtain. It is up to the artistic sense, to the work internal needs to include to, or exclude from, some components of the creative process.

So, in this sense, as a way of concluding, or for not concluding, I would say firmly, yes, art is really an extremely elitist activity. It works only through a genuine exchange among one creative mind and the recipient of its message, a person, whoever she is, who’s soul and mind is affected and made reverberate by the work. More interesting, this process keeps going, turning back and forth between the creative mind and the viewer, eventually including other people. It’s a powerful and unique form of communication.

The person affected by the process can be one or one thousands. It is not given to a commissioner, nor to the EU, not even to the artist herself to decide it, especially in this age of overwhelming production of media, where art doesn’t have the exclusive upon the means of communication any more, where advertisement is more appealing and engaging of art, where politics are more publicised and persuasive than visuals.

That said, let’s go back to work and try to make a truly genuine participatory work.