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Asking the Audience

Participatory Art in 1980s New York

Adair Rounthwaite

Publication Year: 2017

The 1980s was a critical decade in shaping today’s art production. While newly visible work concerned with power and identity hinted at a shift toward multiculturalism, the ‘80s were also a time of social conservatism that resulted in substantial changes in arts funding. In Asking the Audience, Adair Rounthwaite uses this context to analyze the rising popularity of audience participation in American art during this important decade.

Rounthwaite explores two seminal and interrelated art projects sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation in New York: Group Material’s Democracy and Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here…. These projects married issues of social activism—such as homelessness and the AIDS crisis—with various forms of public participation, setting the precedent for the high-profile participatory practices currently dominating global contemporary art. Rounthwaite draws on diverse archival images, audio recordings, and more than thirty new interviews to analyze the live affective dynamics to which the projects gave rise. Seeking to foreground the audience experience in understanding the social context of participatory art, she argues that affect is key to the audience’s ability to exercise agency within the participatory artwork.

From artists and audiences to institutions, funders, and critics, Asking the Audience traces the networks that participatory art creates between various agents, demonstrating how, since the 1980s, leftist political engagement has become a cornerstone of the institutionalized consumption of contemporary art.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Recovering Audience

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pp. 1-30

In November 1988, members of the artists’ collective Group Material hung a sign declaring “Under New Management” above the street entrance to the Dia Art Foundation’s gallery at 77 Wooster Street in Soho. The cloth sign (Figure I.1), with three white words in different fonts on a black background, was a found object, the kind of ready-made announcement used to publicize a change in store management. Shortly after the sign was hung, conversations between Group Material members and Dia staff ensued. Curator Gary Garrels informed the artists that Dia staff were disturbed by the sign and by what it might imply about Dia. Group Material member Julie Ault recalls that...

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1. The Politics of Participation

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pp. 31-74

In recent years, art historians and critics have canonized Group Material’s Democracy and Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here... at the Dia Art Foundation as important pre-cursors to participatory and social-practice art from the 1990s to the present.1 Central to the projects’ participatory format were their open “town-hall meeting” discussion forums, which offered the public an opportunity to come discuss the social and political issues addressed in a series of changing gallery installations (Figure 1.1). But despite the positive evaluations of these projects that circulate today, in their own historical moment, in 1988–89, critics expressed marked ambivalence about their political and aesthetic success. David Trend, for example, found that the discussion of political issues in...

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2. The Pedagogical Subject of Participation

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pp. 75-112

In North America, the beginning of September is when the new school year starts. In 1988, the beginning of September also marked the opening of Group Material’s exhibition “Education and Democracy” at the Dia Art Foundation’s gallery at 77 Wooster Street in Soho. This was not a coincidence.1 The starting date of the exhibition under-scored the fact that it focused on the idea of education. For this first of the four installations composing the Democracy project, the gallery was installed to look like a classroom filled with art (Figure 2.1). The walls were painted with blackboard paint and bore traces of writing in chalk. A set of real school desks, complete with graffiti,...

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3. Photography, Agency, and Participation

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pp. 113-154

In chapter 2, I argued that photographic documentation is a site for the production of meaning surrounding participatory art. Now I will dissect that claim more carefully by analyzing the relationship between photographic documentation images and the social relationships that make up the material of participatory art. Photographs of participatory artworks generated by institutions, artists, and audiences are proliferating rapidly in art-related publications and social media. Moreover, as Claire Doherty points out, still and moving photographic documentation of participatory events is now often sold as art itself.1 Despite this, art historians have largely bracketed the role of photographs as an important issue concerning how we conceive of the politics and aesthetics of...

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4. Art, Affect, Crisis

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pp. 155-202

What role can art take up relative to a crisis? The height of the American AIDS crisis, from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, saw the expression of very strong opinions on this issue. Literary scholar Jean-Paul Rocchi argues that the fraught position of representation in that context stemmed from the simultaneous acknowledgment of its insufficiency and its necessity: “While it was generally agreed that linguistic representation could mask the horrors of reality, it was also widely assumed that only a new rhetoric could spur a return to the real.”1 Art critic Douglas Crimp, in his October article “AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism” (1987), argues that the crisis compelled...

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Conclusion: Participation in the Present

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pp. 203-210

During the research for this study, I was as curious about live events of participation as about the way those events remain after the fact. That dual curiosity is reflected in my gravitation toward moments where the live and its documents rub up against each other and also in my attempts to trace the ways those documents create meaning alongside or sometimes in spite of the events they “document.” As is logical for a historical study, the purview of those analyses has been mainly retrospective. I will close the book by reversing this backward gaze to consider what might be made, in the present and future, of participation’s archives and also to make some concluding points about what my historical case studies suggest for the analysis of current participatory art....

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pp. 211-214

Thank you, first of all, to everyone whom I interviewed during my research for this project. Some of those conversations made their way into the text as source material, and some did not, but all contributed, in different ways, to my evolving thought on the project. Thank you in particular to Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, and Martha Rosler, who shared not only memories and critical perspectives but also invaluable archival material. Their input has strengthened my work. Julie spent valuable time and energy fact-checking most of the manuscript. I have strong appreciation for the care and criticality that both Julie and Martha bring to their own written work, which has made engaging with their texts throughout this study a rich experience....


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pp. 215-250


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pp. 251-275

E-ISBN-13: 9781452953861
E-ISBN-10: 1452953864
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816698738

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2017

OCLC Number: 960939855
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Asking the Audience

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Interactive art -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Art, American -- New York (State) -- New York -- 20th century.
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