“Our advanced art approaches a fragile but marvelous life, one that maintains itself by a mere thread, melting the surroundings, the artist, the work, and everyone who comes to it into and elusive, changeable configuration” (Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, 1993, p. 18) This is what Allan Kaprow wrote in 1961, This is what Allan Kaprow wrote in 1961, when he described the tendencies of post-war art to invite the public to be part of the artistic process, both physically and intellectually. The text is used as a manifesto of participatory art, which is briefly defined as art that becomes complete only through public participation.
Participatory art has its origins in the first half of the twentieth century, in Futurism and Dadaism, artistic performances meant to provoke, scandalise and agitate the public. In the 1960’s, Allan Kaprow conceives the so-called „happenings”, in which the public was persuaded to participate in the experience. The concept was also explored by Guy Debord, the founder of situationism, who wanted to eliminate the viewer’s position by devising industrial paintings created en masse. After the 1970’s, the movement spread around the world to address communities, using their identity, collective memory, social values, local mythologies and their trauma.
Participatory art led to the loss of the so-called “mysticism” that surrounded the artistic genius and, through the means it used, established an interdependence relationship between the artist, the public and the community. Art was built through the interaction between the public and the artist, each having a significant contribution. Both the participants and the society as a whole are, equally, the material and the artistic medium with which the author operates; without them, the artwork does not exist. As a collective expression, this type of performance was an instrument used in the late 1960’s social experiment and politics, and became known through the feminist participatory movement and civil rights protests. Historians such as Matthew Flinders or Malaika Cunningham declared participatory art as a political act because it produced an environment in which the artist and the community expressed their political feelings.
The goal is often divided between creating dialogues, social activism and community mobilisation. There are many forms of artistic expression, such as theatre, music, writing, film, photography, new media or performance art. Occasionally, these forms tend to absorb the public completely, as it happened with “Cut Piece” in 1964, when members of the audience cut off pieces of Yoko Ono’s clothes until they left her completely naked.
Probably the most famous participatory art performance remains The Artist Is Present, by Marina Abramovic, held at MoMA in 2010, when the public was invited to sit opposite the artist. Abramovic spent 736 hours and 30 minutes, 8 hours a day, on a chair at a table in the museum atrium, as 1,545 visitors sat face to face with her. The experience was described as highly intense and having a cathartic effect.
In Romania, after 1989, participatory art projects were noticed that met the needs of some communities or addressed the difficulties that a group of people experienced. In Marcel Bunea’s 1995 performance Urmele Exodului (Exodus Traces), the artist lived for two weeks with a Roma community expelled from the outskirts of a locality, to build a monument together with its members. On realising the needs of the community, he began to show them how to build houses. Using traditional techniques, the artist and the Roma population built adobe houses together.
Other large-scale participative art performances took place under the project entitled Find your identity, initiated by Irina Cios in 2006 and dedicated to the communities dislocated from the Rahova and Uranus neighbourhoods of Bucharest that had been demolished for the construction of the People’s House. Various artists and artistic groups were involved in the project and created a space for a dialogue about the needs and problems of the community. They built a platform through which people became involved in artistic events focused on discovering one’s identity and regenerating the community.
In the past decades, participatory art has been present in a global context, a means used by individuals, communities and organisations to promote civic involvement and community activation through artistic performances that become a game involving both the artist and the population.