Clocking in at nearly 900 pages of dense text plus index, Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by artist and researcher Samuel Bianchini and curator and critic Erik Verhagen, is a door-stopper of a book. Its ambition is equal to its mass: it proposes to rewrite postwar Western art history in order to trace the emergence of a heretofore unrecognized organizing principle of art that serves as the book’s title.
Works that merit the designation ‘practicable’ subvert the “do not touch” mentality of art as a sacred object of veneration; instead they are those in which, as contemporary parlance would have it, the user experience is central. As that term suggests, many of the more recent works of the practicable use digital technology and feature mediated interactivity, but that’s not a necessary condition of their being. Indeed, a number of the works discussed in the book are decidedly low-tech even as they embody conceptual foundations that are forward-looking.
The book is both a historical survey and a theoretical treatise. It starts with a genealogy of the practicable dating back to the ’50s and in particular the influence that the development of cybernetics has had on its emergence. It highlights key artists and movements, of course, and then brings broader humanities and social science perspectives to bear. Other sections focus on performativity and methods of exhibiting the practicable. The book ends with several case studies and interviews with artists, curators, and critics, the most memorable for me being the last one, with the incisive critic of relational aesthetics, Claire Bishop. The entries are mostly short, allowing for a plethora of voices to enter the conversation and explore the practicable in all its multiplicity.
The first-mover of part I, ‘From Cybernetics Onward’, is not Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, but English author, inventor, and educational theorist Gordon Pask, whose side interest in musical theater provided the venue, in works such as 1968’s Colloquy of Mobiles, to test the way various information systems and human beings could interact in conversations and adapt to one another. The sections on art movements and artists contain a welcome internationalist cast, including the Brazilian Concretists and Neo-Concretists, the French Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visual (GRAV), and Polish artist and architect Piotr Kowalski.
The usual suspects are there as well, including Robert Rauschenberg, whose collaboration with artists and engineers in the Experiments with Art and Technology (EAT) organization in the late ’60s and early ’70s opened the door to emergent practices of intermedia of various sorts, and Yoko Ono, whose 1964 Cut Piece — in which the artist sat motionless while members of the audience cut away pieces of her clothing — became a feminist symbol of gender-encoded passivity and vulnerability and its potential for violation, made manifest a decade later by Marina Abramovic in a performance that took place in a Naples gallery where a mostly male audience, using various implements, subjected her to intimate groping and physical injuries that drew blood on her denuded body.
A key concept running through the book is ‘dispositif’, a French word that the editors note has no easy English translation. It’s often rendered as ‘apparatus’ or ‘device’, giving it a somewhat mechanical connotation, leaving open the possibility of missing the more active, constructive notions of its alternate definitions as a plan of action, a legislative pronouncement, or a legal provision in a contract. The term entered the contemporary critical lexicon via Michel Foucault, who began ruminating on it later in his career, before his untimely death from AIDS at age 50 in 1984. Foucault was interested in three things that thinking through the concept of the dispositif might reveal: systems of various elements such as bodies of knowledge, social, cultural, and political institutions, physical structures, scientific theorems, philosophical and moral precepts, etc., and their interrelationships; the specific connections within and disjunctures between various elements that might constitute ways of understanding, both explicitly and implicitly, or what in Foucauldian terms would be understood as regimes of truth; and the power, both positive and negative (which for Foucault is always the ultimate question), that these operative nexuses might have at key historical moments.
Leaving it untranslated, the editors propose a usage of dispositif, as it relates to contemporary art, as ‘arrangements… that organize… operating capacities or… the way the conditions of a real or potential process are arranged’. Works of art surveyed in this book, those which the various contributors understand as practicable, manifest, engage, and sometimes contest dispositifs in that they establish conditions, the effects of which are not always predetermined, that create situations that are not only aesthetic, but oftentimes social and political as well, and which typically work in collaboration with a public. Practicable artworks are conditional; they are not only experimental but can be experimented with.
As the editors note in the introduction, practicable approaches to art start to appear in Western culture at roughly the same time as theories of participatory democracy. What is not noted (although Bishop does hint at it) is that both coincide with the ascendance of neoliberalism in which self-reliance becomes not an aspiration but a mandate. (That connection is the subject of another book, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization by Jasper Bernes, which I will be reviewing soon.) From that perspective, participation, and the practicable art that embraces it, may not constitute a model for a new form of revolutionary liberte, egalite, fraternite, but augurs a new dispositif, what can be termed, following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, a new spirit of capitalism, in which we are set loose to rely on one another not because we desire it but because there is no alternative.