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This is a post I’ve been building up to writing for a very long time. One of the main findings from my PhD, and something I’ve been turning over in my head ever since I finished it, is that sculpture could and should be a framework from which we can discover new ways of working collaboratively. One of the reasons why investing in the meaning that material brings to an artwork is so important is because different materials allow for different ways of working, but they also touch different people with different skill sets and different approaches too. I think there is a triangular relationship between material, making and collaboration, and this post recounts a recent scenario that helped me to solidify why that is.

In her 2012 study, “Artificial Hells”, art critic Claire Bishop notes that the more traditional, studio-based fine art disciplines – painting, sculpture, printmaking, etc. – are excluded from any consideration of participatory practice, which is more strongly associated with performance and new media (1). Think of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, for example, where the artist worked with both battle reenactment groups and miners who participated in the 1984 strike and were subject to police violence to stage a recreation of that event. The predominant method we have for understanding “participation” – how it works and how we can critique it – is still closely linked to Nicholas Bourriard’s 2002 “Relational Aesthetics” (as Bishop also notes in her study). Bourriard is preoccupied with a “new” (but now, actually quite old) approach, lifting everyday interactions and placing them in an art context. Bourriard’s examples of this kind of practice include Rirkrit Tiravanija’s serving Thai soup ingredients to a group of collectors, or Christine Hill’s hosting a gym workout in a gallery (2). Drawing from the legacy of Fluxus performance art (3), the strategy of rejecting object-production in order to similarly reject the capitalist model of visual art, its collectors and its institutional spaces is in operation here. Bourriard explains that “…present day art does not present the outcome of a labour, it is the labour itself or the labour-to-be.” (4) (although there are some clear problems with relational aesthetics too. I feel they’re pretty well summed up in this video.) As a result, sculpture, its fellow traditional fine art disciplines, and individually-authored works, have been relegated to a model of art which functions primarily as a vehicle for accumulating wealth.

Though Bishop’s claim is clear, sculpture as a discipline actually has more in common with “relational aesthetics” than it may initially seem, despite that it is – and always will be – connected to object-production. We’re more than 40 years after Krauss’ seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (5) which summarised its expansion from a limited selection of materials and processes to incorporating anything and everything. Despite its prolonged and continued investment in materials and processes wrenched from broader social contexts – a strategy which actually seems to resonate strongly with Bourriard’s ideas rather than oppose them – sculpture has never quite fully intervened with unfolding dialogues related to participation. It has expanded to contain welding, quilting, smearing, dropping and scrunching. It’s opened up to urinals, stuffed goats, vegetables, blood and shit. It has yet to really let in people.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is, again, sculpture is still weighed down and dragged backwards by its continued association with limited materials and processes which are inaccessible to most people (and most sculptors included. I wrote an early post addressing this problem). That said, it seems to me that we’re now moving towards a new understanding of what sculpture is, and as a result, a new understanding of what it can do. Sculptors are identifying possibilities for object-making to become collaborative. The American ceramicist Theaster Gates, for example, is known for bringing together groups who might not normally interact through constructing objects collaboratively. The artist himself explains: “I think my interest is in the way production can make deeper the relationships between people who don’t normally hang out.” (6) His exhibition in Milwaukee is an example of this approach in action, when he enlisted a group of union workers (or as he described them, “a group of big white brothers” (7),) to produce ceramic works which were then displayed whilst African-American gospel choir singers performed at the opening event. Though art critic Ethan W. Lusser acknowledges the strong connection between Gate’s approach and Bourriard’s strategy, he suggests instead that Gates is forging a new path for sculpture to begin the dialogue with participation anew (8). This may be because, unlike Deller’s battle reenactment, Gates prioritises participatory making rather than participatory action. There is the act of coming together facilitated by the making, the interaction necessitated due to the productive act, and then the object left behind as a record of this.

What is the importance of making, then? Why is it important to engage in a model of participation which produces a product over one which swerves this (somewhat archaic, and for some good reasons) insistence on art-object altogether? I believe these reasons are multiple, overlapping and complicated, but together, pave a new path for sculpture which, if it continues to follow, is another means of achieving its potential of becoming a socially, politically and environmentally engaged framework. Here are just a few of them:

  • Making increases confidence and has a direct connection with our self worth. In an essay which I return to repeatedly, artist Martha Rosler observes the Marxist connections between the increase in commodification, the reduction of craft-based skills and the decline in a shared and individual cultural self-worth (9). We don’t make stuff any more, and we don’t value ourselves because of this. Sculpture is equipped to address this, since it is now possible to make a sculpture with either a) no skill (scrunching, stacking etc.) or b) skill in a non-sculptural process (weaving, sewing etc.). More people can make things in more different ways.
  • Object-production is a means of taking up space and leaving a record. In the same way showing up at a protest and contributing to collective political action is an act of resistance, creating an object in the world which similarly takes up space – and particularly if it is created by a group for a shared purpose – can be a powerful form of activism. The best examples of this are found in quiltmaking, a process which lends itself extremely well to participation since it brings together fragments which can be created by different people and symbolically sewn together. Mamy strong and moving examples can be found in Jess Bailey’s “Many Hands Make a Quilt: Short Histories of Radical Quilting” (10).
  • Engaging in a productive activity together is a means of creating an environment to work through uncomfortable conversations. In the same way Bourriard repeatedly looks to sharing food together as a means of establishing community, collective object-making can do this too. Artist Kerry Tenbey said that this is a reason they work sculpturally with an emphasis on making: it helps us host those difficult conversations (read the interview with Kerry here.) Occupied hands fill awkward silences, and even make them comfortable. Communities can become established and long-term relationships genuinely forged in this way, particularly with a physical reminder of this time spent together after the fact.

There are many, many more reasons why sculpture in the 2020s is well positioned to integrate participatory making as a response to social change, but how might this be achieved? As I often find in my research, a possible solution lies in material. Here is one example of how that could work.

“The Grass is Blue” at Jeweller’s, Morecambe, March 2023.

I approached a recent workshop commission with these questions. Working with Jeweller’s – an artist-led space and free school programme in Morecambe – I was tasked to deliver a participatory workshop which supported the show I had produced there (you can see images and find out more about it here.) The exhibition explored both natural forms and domestic materials: rocks were quilted and sewn from tie-dyed fabric, picture frames were made from salt-dough and all were assembled together as a diorama of Morecambe, borrowing its colour-pallette and strange spectrum of man-made to natural environments. I wanted to find a way that participants could both engage and experiment individually with material and landscape, but then come together to produce an object. Here is what happened:

  • Participants assembled at Jeweller’s and together, we walked from the Arndale shopping centre which houses the space to the beach. I hope that moving through this obviously man-made space onto one which is perceived as natural (but certainly is not) would help blur our understanding of this binary.
  • I explained the task: we were going to take rubbings of the rock wall surfaces using tin foil. Though some people asked me the “right” way to do this, I was reluctant to make the method too clear. The few times I’ve tried this myself, I’ve used a paintbrush over the foil laid on the surface of the rock and used a back-and-forth motion to get into all the nooks and crannies, but this isn’t the only way, nor is it necessarily the “best” one. The purpose of this vague instruction was to encourage people to discover their own way of connecting with the two materials. There did seem to be a range of methods: some used their fingertips rather than a tool, whilst others delicately brushed the foil as if they were excavating a dinosaur-bone from the earth.
  • The workshop began with just 8 participants but then as passers-by noticed the activity, more and more joined in. Scraps of rocky tin-foil piled up on the beach. I hope people were drawn to the familiarity of the material, yet intrigued by its unfamiliar use. The activity was simple, low-pressure, non-stressful, low-risk yet experimental, and it was all of these things because of the affordances of the foil.
  • As the rolls of tin-foil eventually reached their end, we collected back together with rough squares of silver rock face, glinting even in the watery sunlight. Once again, the affordances of tin-foil allowed us to do more with these rubbings: we twisted the edges together, transforming a collection of sculptural fragments into a series of 3D rock forms, taking up space on the beach.

There was something symbolic about setting up a scenario which allowed people to work individually in a focused way then returning collectively to piece those elements together as complete objects. The rocky, tin-foil sculptures were capturing the attention of those who hadn’t participated too, responding to the forms as artworks in their own right. It is possible to interpret meaning from the pieces as we would an individually-authored work in a gallery: they speak to all of the themes I explored in the exhibition (material agency, sustainability, the man-made versus the natural, etc.) in their own way, but they were also the product of a complex and nuanced collection of makers, each giving and taking their own responses, interpretations and understandings of what we had done. Aside from the social importance of collaborative making, this makes the resulting works far more critically intricate than I could achieve as a single-author.

A triangular relationship between participation, making and material starts to emerge, as each stretch out to one another to link arms. A frequent supporter of participatory practice, art critic Jacques Ranciere suggests understanding collective authorship as a form of expanded collage: each element of the making process could be produced by a different person or a group towards a different result, combining different approaches, skills and interpretations of the action (11). I think this is what happened in the workshop: I invited participants to perform a simple action, which then – much like a collage or a quilt – culminated into a striking series of sculptures no less fascinating in meaning than those I might produce alone. Material’s role here was acting as the catalyst through which I could encourage focus and experimentation. One recurring theme in my research and practice is revealing unexpected qualities or characteristics of a material which might be used for something other than it is intended. Familiarity and everyday use tend to disguise a material’s properties to us: tin foil, for example, is for wrapping sandwiches. We don’t use it for anything else, and its other possibilities lie dormant. Halfway through the workshop, I asked one young boy if it had changed his mind about either the rocks or the foil and he said “yes: I now know that tin-foil can be anything,” and for me, this observation says an awful lot.

There are many other themes and concerns which overlap in this example: again, I am reminded of the importance of the perspective of the “Non-Expert” (which I first reflected on in this post) and the value of not knowing. At the end of this account of one example of collaboratively produced sculpture, I hope to suggest that the discipline is ready and waiting to enrich our understanding of what visual art can achieve if it is “participatory”. Sculpture brings with it debates surrounding skill, process and material as well as contributing to creativity as a means of empowering communities and taking-up space politically. Not only this, but collaborative authorship can result in sculptures which enrich and positively complicate our interpretation of them. The overlapping relationships between making, material and participation offer a template to help us achieve this.

  1. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verson, 2012), 18.
  2. Nicholas Bourriard, Relational Aesthetics (le presses du reel, 2002), 7.
  3. See Allan Kaprow’s Happenings for the clearest example of this practice.
  4. Nicholas Bourriard, Relational Aesthetics (le presses du reel, 2002), 110.
  5. Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, in October, no. 8 (Spring 1979). I’ve written a post in the past about why this essay is simultaneously brilliant and troubling.
  6. Ethan W. Lasser, “Scaling Up: Theaster Gates, Jr, and His Toolkit” in Craft, Tanya Harrod, ed. (London: Whitechapel, 2018) 221.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Martha Rosler, “For An Art Against the Mythology of Everyday Life” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975 – 2001, edited by Martha Rosler, 3-8. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Originally published in Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art Journal, no. 3 (June – July 1979).
  10. Jess Bailey, “Many Hands Make a Quilt: Short Histories of Radical Quilting, (London: Common Threads Press, 2021).
  11. Jacques Rancière, “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art” in Participation, Claire Bishop ed. (London: Whitechapel, 2012).

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