- Audiences, Publics, Speech. A review of Adair Rounthwaite, Asking the Audience:Participatory Art in 1980s New York
Audiences speak. This assumption is essential to the method and to the argument of Adair Rounthwaite's Asking the Audience: Participatory Art in 1980s New York, and around that assumption the book's considerable strengths and occasional weaknesses constellate. In her commitment to pursuing archival traces of audience responses, Rounthwaite produces a textured account of a carefully selected set of works. Her pragmatic attachment to what individuals say or have said about their experiences as part of an audience also raises questions about what it means to speak for, or to speak as, an audience. Do audiences speak?
As the book's subtitle suggests, Rounthwaite is interested in art that foregrounds the potential for participation. "Participatory" might seem redundant when applied to art, but here the word takes a strong form. Participation is at once a description for the kind of engagement audiences commit, and a goal to which certain kinds of art aspire: participation is responding to art as doing or praxis– or, at the very least, as dialogue. Asking the Audience, then, describes both the mode of certain kinds of participatory art and the method of this book, which is to ask members of audiences to speak about what they thought about events in which they participated. Rounthwaite's focus is compellingly narrow. Her objects are collectively curated exhibits put together in 1988 and 1989 by the Manhattan collective Group Material, and a similar exhibition from 1989 by the artist Martha Rosler. These exhibits happened at the Dia Center, and marked departures both for the artists, who unusually affiliated themselves with the wealthy institution, and for the Dia, which had been, and largely remains, dedicated to a more austere abstract and minimalist tradition, what Rounthwaite calls Dia's "antisocial sublime aesthetic" (77). She is especially interested in the "town-hall meetings"–Rounthwaite herself uses quotation marks when first using the term–that were part of these exhibits. At these town-hall meetings, the artists invited people to talk about issues relevant to their exhibits, including education in New York City, homelessness, and AIDS. Archived recordings of these meetings are crucial to what Rounthwaite calls her "archivally substantiated understanding of audience experience" (7).
A critique of existing art history grounds her practice: "Contemporary art history is dominated by accounts in which scholars and critics align themselves with the radical goals of the artists without paying equally close attention to how those goals turn out in practice" (11). Close attention to the archival traces of "audience experience," she contends, can illuminate "how these goals turn out." The projects on which she focuses are notable for the sheer volume and remarkable richness of the archives that concern them, but surely she is right that more scholars could seek out and pay close attention to more extensive archives of responses to works beyond the reviews of a few privileged critics. (This criticism applies well beyond her field of art history.) For Rounthwaite, this task is also urgently specific to her objects because the kind of participatory art she studies explicitly makes the claim that audiences or viewers participate– and yet rarely do the archives of such participation receive much scholarly attention. Participatory art, she writes, "confronts the scholar with living people" (25). That these works anticipate what Nicolas Bourriaud has dubbed "relational aesthetics" to describe the practice of such artists as Thomas Hirschhorn is also important to the stakes of this argument and points beyond the moment of Group Material and Rosler. Rounthwaite, indeed, sees this moment as an important precedent for a range of art practices since the late 1980s, the period on which she focuses.
Living people confront the scholar, but in what form? Mediated in what ways? Rounthwaite's unpublished archive includes two main sources: recordings and other written, printed, and photographic remains; and interviews conducted and emails exchanged in the years leading up to the publication of her book. Her archive, then, is substantially divided between records in several media from almost...