Martin Lucas is an artist, educator and media activist. As a founding member of the Paper Tiger Television Collective, Martin was one of the producers of The Gulf Crisis Television Project in 1991. His work has been seen at locales including the Buena Vista Arts Center, San Francisco, the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, New York, The Knitting Factory, The New York Film Festival and the Ars Electronica, Linz. He teaches video and new media production and theory in the Integrated Media Arts MFA Program of the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York.

Action Between Art and Citizenship

Martin Lucas

Volume 4Article 3

Action Between Art and Citizenship

Martin Lucas

Volume 4Article 3 Download

Action Between Art and Citizenship

Martin Lucas
Volume 4/Article 3 Download
Martin Lucas is an artist, educator and media activist. As a founding member of the Paper Tiger Television Collective, Martin was one of the producers of The Gulf Crisis Television Project in 1991. His work has been seen at locales including the Buena Vista Arts Center, San Francisco, the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, New York, The Knitting Factory, The New York Film Festival and the Ars Electronica, Linz. He teaches video and new media production and theory in the Integrated Media Arts MFA Program of the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York.

“Politics is what happens between people.”
-Hannah Arendt {1}

It was during the Renaissance that painting came down off of church walls and ceilings and the quadrangular picture frame became the space for the creation of the work. In a later period, linked to Mannerism, a proscenium arch offered the painting as a theatricalized space. And with the rise of abstraction, abstract expressionism in particular, the canvas began to be seen as a space of action rather than a space of depiction. This movement was dramatized as performance by Fluxus, which reframed art as an event, and by Situationism both for its critique of consumer capitalism and its reduction of the art object to a commodity. Situationism also mobilized the spectator in the dérive to frame the city as the space of engagement, linking politics with spatial aesthetics—a gesture performed by many contemporary social practitioners and participatory artists. This somewhat facile encapsulation of 600 years of art history illuminates very recent developments in the project and scope of avant-garde movements, and their means of linking art and politics. Each stage in the framing of art is also a framing of the political. If it is a leap to tie the notion of the artistic frame to the framing of political participation, it is a leap that I would like to make, at least provisionally.

I want to relate the artistic frame to the framework of political participation, describing practices by Jeanne van Heeswijk and Tania Bruguera, two artists who draw on the legacy of Hannah Arendt to develop projects that question the boundaries of social, cultural, and political participation.{2} While both artists work in a tradition of public art sometimes imagined to affirm certain consensual liberal norms, van Heeswijk and especially Bruguera appeal to Arendt because her model of democracy is agonistic characterized by performance, speech, and heroic action. The frame for Arendt is a proscenium for the theatrical, indeed virtuosic production of individual meanings in conflict. Arendt called theater “the political art par excellence” because “it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others.”{3} Arendt wrote those lines in 1958, but they allow us to consider social practice art at least potentially as a political art. Arendt’s writings prompt us to ask how aesthetic judgement can be linked to political judgement. This is the core transference that animates work by Bruguera and van Heeswijk. They are not just political artists in the sense of being activists who work in the art world. Rather, following Arendt, they are artists who create the preconditions for politics and who explore the politics that are made possible within certain situations.

In her influential book Artificial Hells (2012), art historian Claire Bishop criticizes the social valence applied to social practice today. “An analysis of this art must necessarily engage with concepts that have traditionally had more currency within the social sciences than in the humanities: community, society, empowerment, agency.”{4} Art, Bishop stresses, is not social action. On some level, it remains semiotic. Even when an artist doesn’t want to do symbolic work, but to make change and be effective, they must employ symbolic means. In her interview with Tania Bruguera at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016, when Bruguera talks about removing the art framing around her projects, Bishop stops her: “you’re completely in denial about the symbolic aspect of your work.” Bishop gives the example of Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (2009), re-done in 2014 at the Plaza de la Revolución, a locale redolent with symbolic meanings for the placement of an open mic. For Bruguera, doing the project in the Plaza, as opposed to an art world location, is a guarantee of its validity as a political act as opposed to an artistic one. The context matters to the work’s capacity to signify, and in this sense it remains semiotic in form. The question of utility is also one with deep symbolic dimensions. What are these artists actually offering? Nato Thompson’s definition of social practice is instructive: these works “do not preach. They do not advocate. As opposed to providing a literal political message, these artists provide tools for the viewer/participant to develop their own politics. In this sense, the political content is found in a project’s use. They supply possibilities as opposed to solutions.”{5}

Figure 1. Documentation photos from TATLIN'S WHISPER #6 (2009). Courtesy of Tania Bruguera.

The political possibilities engendered in social practice work emerge in real locales (public spaces) while participants develop valid imaginaries (public spheres), echoing the emplaced and contingent character of Arendt’s political ideal. This character goes beyond institutional space, framing any encounter in which the questions of coexistence and a shared future arise.{6} Both van Heeswijk and Bruguera shy away from the art world framing of their practices, and both espouse concrete outcomes, be this the rebuilding of a public square as a youth center in an Amsterdam neighborhood or the creation of a group that can struggle for immigrant rights in Queens. On the other hand, the work’s agency lies in posing questions, raising awareness, and changing attitudes—rather conventional means of address, even when they attend the unconventional social practices offered by the works.{7} The conflict between utility and symbolism is muddied but remains unresolved—a problem that Arendt’s attention to relational space and commonly held objects (the table which sits between political agents) will help us to address.{8}

I also have a more personal motivation for turning to Arendt in thinking through the work of artists like Jeanne van Heeswijk and Tania Bruguera. As a documentary filmmaker, I am familiar with finding meaning in social action in an artistic context, and I am intrigued by social movements and their potential to change the world whether by bringing down a dictator, fighting banks for control of a city, or resisting the destruction of the environment. While social practice art is not documentary film, it is seen as sharing with documentary what Nichols calls “the discourse of sobriety” as well as the fact that it too is often critiqued for its lack of edge and formal concern.{9} One of the difficulties for anyone attempting to discuss, describe, or document participatory art is the ambiguity of the position of the spectator I mention above. The artist is not making an object or even an event, properly speaking, but providing a context for social interactions. Each participant will have a different experience, and if you are an observer, your experience will be different yet again.

As a filmmaker, and as someone who has documented a lot of artwork over the years, including that of van Heeswijk, I am aware of the difficulty of knowing where to stand in order to observe a project that demands participation and commitment. I consider Arendt’s commentary on the individual’s investments in public life, voiced in an 1964 interview with Günter Gaus for German television:

Hannah Arendt interviewed on German television by Günter Gauss, 1964.

The word venture in English is a translation of the German term das Wagnis. Risk or dare might also be translations.{11} It is worth noting her idea that one should not appear self-consciously. What could that mean? One answer is that self-consciousness is not possible because the identity of the self only truly emerges or becomes clear in this space of political appearance, in the space of dispute and making claims. You can’t be self-conscious because the self doesn’t exist before the moment of action, the moment of being in public with others. Feminist political theorist Bonnie Honig speaks directly to this moment in Arendt’s thought: “prior to, or apart from action this self has no identity; it is fragmented, discontinuous, indistinct, and most certainly uninteresting. . . . it risks the dangers of the radically contingent public realm, where anything can happen.”{12}

For Arendt, the risk of action is that we risk our personhood; our self and our vision of the world are tossed into the ring and can be judged by others when we speak out publicly. Rights are only as good as the ongoing efforts we make to exercise them.{13} In a world where documents such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a touchstone of moral commitment, Arendt’s deep suspicion of any claim for inherent human rights puts her in a distinct minority, and with that, it leads to a demand that we face our shared reality by taking up the task of creating institutional frameworks. As political scientist Lida Maxwell puts it: “Arendt’s depiction of individuals losing the ability to claim rights when they lose their polity calls us to understand rights as collective achievements, rather than individual possessions or as part of a national identity.”{14}

This puts us in the place of asking what we share in common. From this position, one can address the future as a context of shared possibilities, rather than strictly a space of territorial contention, of displacement and replacement. Here, instead of zero-sum fights over resources, one can reimagine democracy as a space of useful conflict. It also asks us to look at the impoverished nature of our shared political world, ironically one where those who don’t appear in public in the Greek polis are precisely those whose race, class, and gender provide them the least cover from publicity today, a time when profiling, stop-and-frisk policing, voter suppression, surveillance cameras, mass data mining, homelessness, facial recognition, and more combine to turn public space into a territory of continuous ordeal and diminished ability to exercise citizenship. This question of sharing also opens up the question of the institutional framing of social practice art.


Democracy's Cradle

Like Ancient Greece, Philadelphia is commonly said to be a cradle of democracy and a site of structural racism. Philadelphia, unlike Athens of the Golden Age, is also known for its post-industrial decline, urban disinvestment, and rapid gentrification. It was against this backdrop that the Philadelphia Assembled exhibition opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perlman Building in November 2017. The show was large, taking over the whole first floor, including the three main galleries, the cafe, and the gift shop. The more than 200 collaborators made it a major undertaking as well. The exhibition itself was only the tip of the iceberg, the culmination of a multi-year process that included an intensive series of meetings in the city’s diverse communities. Once the core artistic team of editors were formed, they developed a set of themes around key issues, and orchestrated some sixty art events around the city’s neighborhoods, as well as engaging in an intensive effort to remap the historical and cultural landscape of Philadelphia. The goal of this remapping was aimed at the possibility of developing resources to ask “how can we collectively shape our future?”{15}

I made a video that gives an overview of the work by some of the several hundred artists and community members who ultimately participated in the project. I will only mention here the final piece that Denise Valentine, one of van Heeswijk’s collaborators, had curated personally. The display—Reconstruction— comprised a gallery dominated by the frame of a house, with a fully furnished interior. In a vitrine in the corner, a silver platter with a story engraved on its surface, and a slave collar sit side by side. The plate, from the museum’s permanent collection, comes from a founder of the city, Isaac Norris, and details how he arrived in Philadelphia after an earthquake in Jamaica, bringing his property—an enslaved child. Norris’s name, Valentine notes, decorates streets and neighborhoods around the city. The child remains nameless. For Valentine, who is Black and of a Caribbean background, this story reflects pain at that historical injustice, but pride as well that this story can find a home in this city institution and that she can be here telling it.

Van Heeswijk’s work focuses on “radicalizing the local,” highlighting some of the political dynamics already at play in the communities with which she works. When van Heeswijk started her project, the gap between the white Downtown with its art schools and museums and the working class, largely Black and Latino neighborhoods was being exacerbated by accelerating gentrification. For the museum, with its expressed mandate to benefit “our community and the future of the arts in our city,”{16} van Heeswijk sought to address these conditions over three phases—research, off-site public engagement, and exhibition, which occurred when the project was installed at the museum in the fall of 2017. During the first phase, van Heeswijk worked to gain the trust of neighborhood residents and the various community groups she contacted. As a white Dutch woman, she offered her project as a space for others to develop their own practices, and strengthen their own organizations and communities. After meeting with community leaders, cultural groups, activists, artists, and academics to get a sense of the territory, van Heeswijk developed a preliminary mapping of the cultural resources and assets of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Through these meetings, van Heeswijk organized collaborators into working groups that would develop themes of Reconstructions, Sovereignty, Futures, Sanctuary, and Movement. Four of these groups wound up being represented in the galleries of the museum, while the fifth, Movement, was responsible for the extensive list of publications that emerged in the context of the project.

Figure 2. PHILADELPHIA ASSEMBLED CITY PANORAMA, Jeanne van Heeswijk (2017).

I went to Philadelphia in September 2016, when the research phase was in full swing. In the loft that provided the main meeting place for the project, one wall was covered with hundreds of colored stickies and bits of string linking names of individuals, groups photos, clippings, with thematic notions of education, publicity, and distribution. The other main feature of the space was a large work table, with room for some two dozen people. The first thing to arrive was the food, catered by a project team, in big aluminum trays that gave the feeling of a church social. Van Heeswijk explained that she provided meals and covered transportation and child care out of the production budget so as to make participation accessible to as many people as possible.

That evening we went to one of the neighborhood events—sponsored by the Philadelphia Folklore Project—inside a brightly lit community center near the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. A lively crowd of art workers and community members sat in folding chairs in a room listening to a concert of West African music—mostly in indigenous languages, briefly translated for the group: one was a lament of a woman who loses her family during the civil war, another a call for women to unite. Although it was not discussed overtly, the backdrop of the evening was the horrific civil war that plagued Liberia from 1980 to 2003, a war that saw the country become one with the highest levels of violence against women in the world.{17} The music was followed by a discussion of sexism and violence against women and how these problems had followed West African immigrant communities to Philadelphia. The discussion was notable both because it was real in the sense that there were men defending traditional roles as pater familias, and women criticizing them, but also because the discussion was built around issues from inside the community, and framed in the cultural terms of an art form indigenous to that community. The concert implied that the city was already a space for cross-cultural encounters and migrating social and political debates. This overlap—of public space for public life—was thematized in the show by a dense cartography of the history of struggle and resistance in the city, inter-layered with a minute mapping of the cultural and political assets developed by its citizens. That map, viewable on the Philadelphia Assembled website, suggests the massive bottom-up, and perhaps inside out, nature of the project, which offers a granularity and idiosyncrasy only possible in a crowd-sourced work.{18} For van Heeswijk each entry on the map, whether the site of a historical event or of a current cultural asset, is a personal possession of a participant, brought to the commons. While the Folklore Project ultimately did not participate in Philadelphia Assembled, the event was typical of interactions in this research phase, and did prompt individual members to work with Jeanne.

The development of Philadelphia Assembled’s central themes by participants was a subject in real and often heated debate over local priorities and how to represent them. One of the working groups, Reconstructions, met and researched for over a year. One of the participating organizations was Reconstruction Inc., a group whose name links their efforts assisting ex-offender re-entry to a specific history of the still unfinished project of post-Civil War Reconstruction, the struggle to enfranchise African Americans. The Atmosphere ultimately decided to focus on the issues of mass incarceration, gentrification, and displacement as they developed exhibitions for two public sites in Philadelphia, which in turn led to the final exhibition at the museum, where Reconstruction Inc. reproduced their cozy living room complete with easy chairs in the middle of the museum gallery and met with museum visitors, engaging them with their history and their approach.



Framing the State

If van Heeswijk’s work invites us to politicize institutional space in liberal society, Tania Bruguera operates in a context where freedom of speech and assembly cannot be taken for granted. In Bruguera’s work, risk takes on a bodily dimension. On a small stage at the Havana Biennial, as part of her ongoing series Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version, 2009), she offered one minute on an open microphone to anyone who wanted it and handed out 200 throw-away cameras so that participants could document the event. In the process, the courtyard became the space for an outpouring of thwarted citizenry and their desires for freedom of speech. During the forty-five minutes of the event, some thirty-nine people ended up speaking.

Various reactions were expressed, all respectfully, both those who gave reasons for continuing to follow the revolutionary path of Fidel Castro, as well as those asking for elections where no one from that family could run. From a person whose only reaction was to cry from her inability to find any option but emigrating because of political differences with the regime, to declarations from the Cuban blogger’s movement. Some demanded that any secret police at the event step forward, while others hoped for the day when freedom of expression didn’t have to be a performance piece.{19}

Opening up possibilities for speaking truth to power is central to Bruguera’s work. It is also important for her that her work is completed by responses from the corridors of power. In other words, the response sets the boundaries of the frame by marking the precise limits of public possibility. In the case of Tatlin’s Whisper #6, not only was she arrested, the organizing committee of the Biennial, for whom the boundaries of artistic inquiry were more rigidly fixed, published a denunciation of the comments of the participants for using an artistic event as a cover for political action.{20}

TATLIN’S WHISPER #6 (HAVANA VERSION), Tania Bruguera (2009).

A flashier piece was Tatlin’s Whisper #5, a performance with audience participation that took place at the Tate Modern in 2008. The piece involved a police mounted unit that appeared unannounced and used crowd control techniques to herd and control a group of museumgoers.{21} While the goal here might be seen to give British museum patrons a sense of how easily the rights of assembly can be challenged by the state, her work in Cuba is designed to establish a direct dialogue with the government, and has led to arrests, interrogations, and jail time for her and her fellow participants.{22}

For Bruguera, Arendt’s “space of appearances” where citizens can be heard by their fellows does not exist in Cuba and a vita activa is simply not possible; the basic conditions for people to produce themselves as citizens are missing. What must be created then are the preconditions. She calls her approach Arte Útil, variously translated as Useful Art, or Art as a Tool. In the words of art historian Jose Luis Falcone, it offers “the possibility of forming collective desires.”{23} It is in this context that she created the Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism, INSTAR, inaugurating it in May of 2015 with a 100-hour reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Bruguera stated that if she were an American or European artist, her target would not be the state, it would be the art world.{24} At a time when the struggle over cultural capital is heightened; when, for example, over half a dozen artists can withdraw from the Whitney Biennial and force the departure of a very wealthy board member who is a weapons manufacturer, one is reminded of the stakes of such a project.{25} Gestures such as withdrawal from a prestigious biennial suggest that artists are acutely aware that not only are they part of a global branding operation for dirty money, but that in a world where businesses extract profit exactly from our creativity, artists are both proletarianized and competing with their own audiences whose creativity is similarly exploited.

TATLIN’S WHISPER #5, Tania Bruguera (2008).

The modern public sphere is not just malignant politically, it is framed within a capitalism that extracts value from performance and virtuosity. Public space is predominated by these two factors. The joke is that the concept of art’s autonomy, which traveled a rough road through the second half of the twentieth century, returns in the twenty-first as a space for a new form of art patronage, still draped in the increasingly ghostly garments of social capital.

In a socialist society, the production of utopia is often monopolized by the state and the party. When social practice artist and theorist Gregory Sholette visited Bruguera’s Instituto Arendt in Havana in 2017, he was interrogated on his departure by officials who warned him not to visit Bruguera again. He notes on his blog that “after returning to NYC we discovered that Tania was again detained and interrogated and that the state is now seeking to confiscate her home (the location of INSTAR). The steady pressure is quite cruel and unnecessary for someone who to my mind has the ideals of the revolution as her goal.”{26} It is safe to assume that the revolution that Sholette had in mind is different from that of the Cuban Government, which sees the leading role of the Communist Party as the sole guarantee for any freedoms of the Cuban people.{27}

Arendt believed that modern society has dangerously shrunk the space of shared social action. Her critique of the expansion of what she would call private concerns (not just domestic life, but also the world of work and the economy) over public ones, was based on trends in a postwar period in which governments promoted social legitimacy based on the vast increase in goods and services that came with the rise of a consumer society. That era of the welfare state is over.

Under contemporary neoliberal conditions, Arendt’s categories of Labor/Work/Action are facing more than just an expansion of work at the expense of social action and politics. Now our creativity is where capital derives value; a reality that plays out in various ways. For many, work never ends. There is no separate work day that you can clock out from and no separate work place; you’re always getting a text message or fielding an email request. For others, posting to Facebook on their personal time makes their social network a direct source of profit for Mark Zuckerberg. Paradoxically, as writers like Paolo Virno have noted, this new economic model means that the modalities of Work and Action that for Arendt were separate are now interpenetrated, collapsed into a field where our efforts to live in the world are continuously political. It is this new set of human conditions that these two artists have identified and continue to clarify in their practices.{28}

Claire Bishop sees the rise of social practice art as closely associated with the end of “real existing socialism” and the demise of the Soviet Bloc.{29} For artists who started their careers in the early 90s like Bruguera and van Heeswijk, the end of any real-world collective vision means their work has to function in the space of an imaginary. They cannot hitch their artistic wagons to any specific political formation (in fact, their art is exactly framing and formation driven). In the catalog for The Interventionists, Sholette asks, “can you have a revolutionary art without a revolution?”{30} Bruguera’s work clearly picks up the task of an unfinished revolution in Sholette’s telling.{31} This focus on a potential future, or better said, the invigoration of the future’s potential for political action—what van Heeswijk has dubbed the Not-Yet—is what separates these artists from others and goes some way toward elucidating the way that their work is, drawing on Arendt’s distinctions, political, not social. For Arendt, a society that cannot acknowledge its own shared predicament is headed for fascism.


Uses of the Frame

Once you start taking work out of museum and gallery contexts and putting it into communities and neighborhoods underserved by modern austerity regimes, there is a risk of turning one’s practice into social service, a replacement for the withdrawal of the neoliberal state. As Hal Foster noted in the 1990s, “art institutions may also use site-specific work for economic development, social outreach, and art tourism, and at a time of privatization this is assumed necessary, even natural.”{32} Once the structure of a social practice piece is itself the object of critique, as critics like Foster and Bishop make it, you can ask specifically how a project works, what it does, and whether this space of aesthetic activity and judgement is merely a sop for the masses in the face of austerity, or a form of branding for a social democratic expectation that is no longer being met for citizens whose lives are every day more precarious.

Van Heeswijk’s work has been explicitly criticized for its alignment with governmental goals. As critic Jeroen Boomgaard suggested at the time of her appearance at the 2004 Venice Biennale, “general notions of communication, inter-culturality and exchange have come to replace a politically charged vision of the future based on a strict analysis of the dominant abuses.”{33} Boomgaard seems to be saying that the work in projects like De Strip, where van Heeswijk took over an old shopping mall and made it a cultural center, is not political enough to transcend the framework of anodyne community engagement. I would argue that what separates van Heeswijk’s work (and Bruguera’s too, for that matter) from being a kind of palliative for the demise of social democracy is that from the beginning through her most recent projects, van Heeswijk seeks always to retain an openness about outcomes. Her unwillingness to define outcomes is a core principle, even when it means refusing to apply curatorial control to what will be in a show—a serious difficulty for the institutions she works with. Her work explicitly keeps space open for the new and the unpredictable and, I believe, in the end condemns the status quo.

In her 2012 essay “The Artist has to decide whom to serve,” van Heeswijk asks how we (and the we is left undefined) start producing our future or daily environment together again:

I am concerned with the creation of spaces within which any person may speak. The key concepts in my work are “acting,” “meeting” and “communicating,” activities which demand that both the viewer and initiator take responsibility. In order to induce such engagement, I try to create “intermediate spaces” within communities.{34}

Bruguera shares a similar sense of the need for civic engagement. The website for INSTAR has the following paragraph in its mission statement:

This is a unique moment to think about the concept of the nation, to imagine a new country. Because our ideas are still in the process of gestation, there is room for us all to participate. And as art allows us to transform a chaotic vision into an encounter with an unexpected order, a new order, from there we can articulate a new future.{35}

Once we invoke a new future we are invoking the new as a category. Arendt considered the new to be one of the two main aspects of the human condition that provides the title of her 1958 book. For Arendt the breakdown of the belief in tradition and authority that starts with the end of scholasticism and the rise of modern philosophy in the seventeenth century created a crisis we are still trying to deal with: a loss of belief in religion (and hence immortality) and in authority as the factors that legitimate governments.{36} Her own search for a valid foundation for modern political life to replace it led her to two concepts, natality and plurality. For Arendt, being born means we all have the ability to make new beginnings in the world. As Andrea Thuma puts it, “according to Arendt, human beings are not ‘born to die’ in the sense of a Heideggerian ‘Being towards death,’ but they are born to begin anew. This capacity of making new beginnings in the world is the fundamental human capacity to be free—a capacity possessed by each and every individual.”{37}


For Arendt, however, the fulfillment of this freedom can only emerge in the context of an engagement with others in a public way. This emergence on what she terms “the stage of appearances” (that place where we encounter others and state our own vision) is so important that she calls it a “second birth.”{38} Plurality emerges from the simple fact that we are born into a world with other people in it. In order to live with each other we have to communicate to others our uniqueness. As Arendt states in Between Past and Future:

Human action, like all strictly political phenomena, is bound up with human plurality, which is one of the fundamental conditions of human life insofar as it rests on the fact of natality, through which the human world is constantly invaded by strangers, by newcomers whose actions and reactions cannot be foreseen by those who are already there and are going to leave in a short while.{39}

How do we understand this space where this encounter can happen? In a revolutionary context this interaction with others is constituent power, the power of the people who create something new, whether the We the people of the US Declaration of Independence, or the All power to the Soviets of the Russian Revolution. For Arendt it is the people’s councils, the political discussion groups, and workingmen’s clubs that are key contexts for political action. The state is mainly scaffolding, not real politics. This kind of constituent power is at its heart about offering new forms of collective action and being. For revolutionaries from 1917 to the 1970s, revolution followed the Communist model and meant taking state power. Today, it is about developing alternatives that alter the relations between people and state. As Gerald Raunig suggests, constituent power means “experimenting with models of organization, collective forms and modes of becoming which resist—at least for a time—reterritorialization and structuralization.”{40} For both van Heeswijk and Bruguera this experimentation is central. Bruguera actually calls her projects “case studies,” and she consistently sees her work to be in dialogue with the state from a place outside it.{41}


The Institutional Frame

Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International is an ongoing project that addresses the social and legal status of immigrants, inviting them to become participants in an artwork and members of an international political party. A significant phase of this project took place in Queens, New York from 2010–2015 and involved developing a community resource center for immigrants in the neighborhood of Corona. The Queens Museum and Creative Time supported the project, which included workshops on occupational health and safety, legal aid for immigrants, ESL classes, as well as art history classes, a campaign for safe streets for bicycles and workshop on domestic violence.{42} Suzie Kantor’s retrospective catalog notes that the outcomes included two women getting legal residence in the United States.{43}

Figure 3. IMMIGRANT MOVEMENT INTERNATIONAL, Tania Bruguera (2011).

In the current environment, museums and other art institutions that bring in artists like Bruguera or van Heeswijk typically see themselves as wanting to engage in a kind of self-improvement. The curators of Bruguera’s retrospective at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts state, “we gratefully challenged our own institution to even more fully realize its ambition to be the creative home for civic action, to transform from a place of transaction to a place of relationships.”{44} In order to understand how this is art, and how the museum understands its role in supporting a project like the Immigrant Rights International, I spoke with Prerana Reddy, curator of the Bruguera project for the Queens Museum. Reddy says:

I want to challenge our audience to think about what art can be and the experience of art in the gallery setting, rather than simply expecting something that provides an immediate sensorial impact and which is explained through densely written object labels. I would like museum users to engage complex social project that requires an investment in time—not just the time to pore through various types of documentation that might represent various stages of a project, but also the time to engage in ongoing public dialogues with the space of the exhibition.{45}

Reddy calls museum goers users, making clear that for the Queens Museum, people who come in the door are not just visitors and something more than members, happy with a tote bag or a special opening hour. Reddy also sees work like this as a bit of a provocation and an encouragement to develop language to describe this kind of art, rather than condemning it as non-art. For Bruguera, people who ask Is it really art? are asking the wrong question, but are also doing what she wants. In other words, they are ultimately thinking Okay, if this isn’t art, what makes it politics? Why isn’t this happening in a political arena?

Reddy notes that in working with Bruguera, The Queens Museum was extending an institutional practice already in place. The museum does not have an encyclopedic collection that reinforces a classic model of museum experience. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which does have such a collection, Contemporary Art Curator Carlos Basualdo was well acquainted with van Heeswijk’s practice and brought her in to help the museum rethink its role as the city’s premiere art space. Assistant Curator Amanda Sroka stresses that the institution changed internally while mounting the piece, as different departments learned to work together. They had growing pains, having had to learn different metrics of success to show to their board, rather than just numbers or ticket sales (which the artist insisted they abandon for this show). More significantly, they spent a year after the show closed going over lessons learned. The museum opened a new branch in a historically Black neighborhood, and in addition, hired community-based collaborators who worked on the project. It is worth quoting Sroka about the experience from the museum’s point of view:

What the project did in such a wonderful way was really being out in the city and asking questions about people and their gifts and what they understood as art and the power of art in the midst of a changing city. It was a civic stage where the city was performed. This idea was that we could hold some of these other narratives inside a museum’s walls—walls are which are walls of privilege. What does it look like to use those walls for a different purpose than what they have traditionally been used for, and what kind of language of art history is it to then say that art can actually be all of these other things?{46}



The Faulty Frame

Since the Arab Spring and the various occupations of 2010 and 2011, there has been a growing evolution of a politics of participation. For Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish 15M movement, there was a commitment to what many participants called direct democracy. This is a politics without party, one where a group forms exactly to discuss the conditions of its own formation.{47} Arendt suggests that the meaning of our lives is found in the engagement, in this tricky public sphere.

Figure 4. Drawings produced in the context of van Heeswijk’s PUBLIC FACULTY NO. 9, produced in conjunction with the Queens Museum, January – May, 2015, in which participated were asked: Do you feel connected? What makes you feel connected? What makes you feel disconnected? Who or what do you wish you could connect with? How would you go about doing that?

One question both of these artists raise is how to define the boundaries of the space they create. Both of them use contexts or spaces, often a public square or park or neighborhood, as the boundaries of the project. In their works the participants become a community of sorts. But the participants are just themselves. In what way do they represent the community, or the neighborhood, or the city or nation? The people who show up are some occupants of a shared public space, not all potential occupants. When there is a demonstration, the demonstrators may say we are the 99% but they are only creating the space for that group to emerge. They don’t claim to represent the 99%, but in some way, to be them.

We can understand the work of social practice artists as open-ended in this way; that the discussion inherent in the piece is about what constitutes its own framing. This open-endedness also extends to the frames themselves, and here I can return to the art/politics discussion. One useful definition of democracy is that it is a political system where parties can lose elections. Such “institutional uncertainty” speaks to the unwillingness of both van Heeswijk and Bruguera to offer controlled or predictable outcomes in their projects, as well as their unwillingness to offer clear boundaries between art and life.{48}

Prerana Reddy notes that Bruguera did make one symbolic gesture when starting her project at the Queens Museum: she brought in a readymade, a classic Duchampian porcelain urinal, and had it installed in the bathroom.{49} This gesture was not willful, rather it makes it clear that by restoring the use value to an object, a value that had been removed by calling it art, and excising the object’s exchange value to play as a piece of culture, that we have reached a moment where a key strategy of the early twentieth century avant-garde is no longer valid or useful. One could say that Bruguera and van Heeswijk offer us an art whose realism lies exactly in its acknowledgement that the separations between life and art that the art world would like to maintain have effectively collapsed. The classic avant-garde aspiration to bring art into life no longer has meaning when the role of the aesthetic is effectively in chains, when public space is a space of threat, and when the frames of artistic and political discourse can only be understood as overlapping, creating a potential set of new meanings and new perspectives.




In memory of Denise Valentine, one of the core artistic team of Philadelphia Assembled. A museum educator and professional storyteller, she listened to the ancestors; now she speaks to us in turn.



Title Video: Philadelphia Assembled (2017) / Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version) (2009)

{1} Hannah Arendt The Promise of Politics, Jerome Kohn, ed. (New York: Schocken, 2005), 95. “There are two good reasons why philosophy has never found a place where politics can take shape. The first is the assumption that there is something political in man that belongs to his essence. This simply is not so: man is apolitical. Politics arises between man and so quite outside of man.”
{2} Both artists draw on the legacy of New Genre public art, a term popularized by Suzanne Lacy, who articulated what she saw as a public art emerging in the 1990s that sought less to educate the public, or bring art out of the museum, than to democratize the process of producing culture. Lacy laid out in some detail the many different forms of interaction this art could offer to potential engagement, from audience member, to volunteer, to collaborator. See Suzanne Lacy, New Genre Public Art: Mapping the Terrain (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 178.
{3} Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 188.
{4} Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012), 7.
{5} Gregory Sholette and Nato Thompson, The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Disruption of Everyday Life (Cambridge: MIT Press/Mass MoCA, 2004), 19.
{6} In Until We Meet Again (1995) she was commissioned to develop a project that centered on the redevelopment of the borough of Westwijk in the Dutch city of Vlaardingen. Instead of creating a plan for placing public sculptures, as she was asked to do, she proposed a ten-year engagement with change in Westwijk. Since then she has honed her approach to social practice art in over eighty projects in Europe, Asia and North America.
{7} “The Artist as Activist: Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Claire Bishop.” April 6, 2016 at CUNY Graduate Center.
{8} Arendt, The Human Condition, 194.
{9} Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3-4.
{10} Hannah Arendt, The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2013), 37.
{11} The Duden Dictionary’s definition of das Wagnis: a.) gewagtes, riskantes Vorhaben (bold/audacious, risky undertaking (or intention) b.) Gefahr, Möglichkeit des Verlustes, des Schadens, die mit einem Vorhaben verbunden ist (danger; possibility of loss, harm which is connected to an intention (or an undertaking).
{12} Bonnie Honig, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 140- 143.
{13} “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.” Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Penguin, 2017), 365.
{14} Lida Madwell, “…to have…,” The Right to Have Rights, eds. Stephanie DeGooyer, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, and Samuel Moyn (London: Verso, 2018), 53.
{15} See van Heeswijk’s website.
{16} Van Heeswijk’s other practice involved similar public projects in working class and immigrant communities from Rotterdam and Brussels to Aarhus, Bordeaux, Sheffield, and Leeds gave a methodology and a sense of her complex role as an outsider.
{17} See the Overseas Development Institute website.
{18} See the Philadelphia Assembled maps.
{19} See Bruguera’s website. Translation mine.
{20} Ibid.
{21} See The Tate’s website.
{22} As the reference to Tatlin suggests, Bruguera is well aware of the legacy of the avant-garde. She notes that she went to art school in Cuba where it was assumed that the purpose of art is to serve the people.
{23} “A Lexicon Interpreted” in Lucía Sanromán, Susie Kantor, eds., Tania Bruguera: Talking to Power/ Hablándole al Poder (San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), 88.
{24} “The Artist as Activist: Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Claire Bishop.”
{25} See Zachary Small, “Eight Artists Withdraw Work from the 2019 Whitney Biennial,” Hyperallergic, July 20, 2019.
{26} Gregory Sholette, “A Week in Havana at Tania Bruguera’s INSTAR, part 1,” December 29, 2017.
{27} The Cuban Revolution derives significant value from the country’s own cultural efforts. Art, modern dance, ballet, music, festivals for documentary film and Latin jazz—all have become central not just as branding for the friendly face of Cuban socialism, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, also to the Cuban economy, which is built upon cultural tourism. In other words, the cultural apparatus that Marx condemned as secondary to the means of production has become central to Cuba’s economy and international branding. What under vulgar Marxist doctrine was deemed the superstructure is now the economic base.
{28} See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004). In “Day 2,” Virno says, “I maintain that post-Fordist labor, the productive labor of surplus, subordinate labor, brings into play the talents and qualifications which, according to a secular tradition, had more to do with political action,” 51.
{29} Bishop, Artificial Hells, 3.
{30} “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere”. Mass MOCA, May 24, 2004, 55.
{31} Sholette, “A Week in Havana.”
{32} Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 197. Bishop goes into detail, showing how for New Labour, participation doesn’t mean self-realization, but the kind of social inclusion that keeps folks off the dole. Artificial Hells, 13.
{33} Jeroen Boomgard “The Platform of Commitment,” One Year In the Wild (Gerrit Reitveld Academie, 2004).
{34} Van Heeswijk, “Typologies and Social Change: Learning to Take Responsibility” (2011).
{35} “INSTAR Mission Statement,” translated by the author.
{36} In Beyond Past and Future (53-54) Arendt talks about the tremendous “world-alienation” that arises in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She mentions Descartes’ statement de omnibus dubitandum est. She details the breakdown in trust both in revelation, and in common sense reasoning, the latter because seeing is no longer believing. In other words, the evidence of ones own eyes is not to be trusted. Her main example is the discovery that the earth orbiting the sun, rather than the reverse.
{37} Andrea Thuma, “Hannah Arendt, Agency, and the Public Space,” in Modernities Revisited, Maren Behrensen, Lois Lee and Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, eds. (Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, 2011).
{38} Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt (Columbia, 1999), 84.
{39} Arendt, Beyond Past and Future, 61.
{40} Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century, trans. Aileen Derieg (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 65-66.
{41} Ivan Muñiz-Reed, “Use the Museum,”Bruguera, et al., Talking to Power (YBCA, 2017), 80.
{42} “Our History,” Immigrant Movement International.
{43} “The Projects” in Tania Bruguera: Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder, 143.
{44} Bruguera, 10.
{45} “Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation: Prerana Reddy and Tania Bruguera” June 10, 2013.
{46} Interview by author, December 30, 2019.
{47} Martin Lucas, “The New Political Subject: Affect and the Media of Self-Organizing Politics” Afterimage 46, no.2: 43-58.
{48} See Adam Przeworski, Crises of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
{49} Prerana Ready, Interview with the author, December 27, 2019.