‫Re:Group – Beyond Models of Participation‬

The brouchure cover by Ange Tang

For the past year I have been collaborating with Paul Amitai (Eyebeam), Jason Jones & Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative) and Marco Desiris (Snafu) on a talk series as a part of Upgrade NY. The series revolved around open source as it relates to activism and creative practice. Yesterday we opened an exhibition on this theme, investigating models of participation and participation as a model.

The show features 13 works from a long list of artists and art collectives. The collaborative process of developing the show was quite fascinating (though sometimes excruciating) on its own. This process reached its climax when we had a really hard time arriving to a consensus on the curatorial statement. Things got pretty emotional as each side felt subsumed by the other in a futile attempt to find the middle ground.

In the core of the disagreement was an intellectual argument Jason and I have been (really) enjoying for the past three years. If we have not reached an agreement for three years, a three days deadline was not enough to change it. Finally we realized that in the rush to come up with a uniform statement we have not internalized the tagline we chose for the show and go “beyond consensus”. We decided to publish an introduction followed by two curatorial statements.

Excerpt from the intro:

For the past year Eyebeam and Not An Alternative have organized the NY node of Upgrade!, with the theme Open Source in Activist and Creative Practice. The decision to produce this show was born from that collaboration, however the curatorial concept was a source of constant debate. A unified position was never achieved, but collaboration does not necessarily result in synthesis. The intention with the following two curatorial statements is to reflect subtle but important differences in our curatorial perspectives on the subjects of collaboration and participation. As we reflect back on the process of curating this show we see that our experience was far richer because of the (albeit sometimes painful) philosophical, aesthetic, and political debates among us.  While harmonious unanimity was never achieved, in our view this must not be seen as an inevitable goal. We appreciate that in this show about collaboration, our curatorial collaboration has honored distinct positions, rather than subsuming difference in pursuit of consensus.

Excerpt from the first statement:

Works featured in Re:Group either incorporate or address participatory models in an attempt to expose their inner conflicts. Who profits the most out of gift economies? How long is the attention span of global solidarity? What are the economics of social capital? Will the tactics of over-identification win the war or just the battle? Does free software spell free speech or free beer or maybe just free labor? Can peer to peer technologies oppose centralized power structures or do they actually ensure the failure of unions to provide sustained resistance? And finally can we go beyond these binaries (the ‘or’s) and confront the multiplicity (the ‘and/or’s) that is network culture?

From within this network of contradictions we have to emerge time and time again with new gain/loss analysis and to constantly reposition ourselves within each participatory context. So we can participate in unauthorized participation, sustain power through free association, collaborate beyond models of consensus… and later also tweet about it.

Excerpt from the second statement:

If participatory frameworks are to have any meaningful political consequence or activist import, they must intervene on some object, to operate in service of an end. Conflict is a necessary result of such collaboration, and a key driving force within it. Current conversations around participation idealize harmony and unison, but we ask whether synthesizing perspectives and valorizing consensus might actually subsume dissenting viewpoints, through the tyranny of compromise and the rule of the lowest common denominator. From this view, we fear a disavowal of power rather than an honest discussion about it.

And so we pass on politesse, and draw a line in the sand. We aren’t interested in raising questions, exploring models of participation or experiments in collaboration. We take a position: that participationism plagues us. More than dismantling or distributing power, we’ve invisibilized and extended it. An intervention is in order, and we offer practices and programming that contribute to this conversation: foregrounding the contours and boundaries inherent in participation, the contradictions and conflicts in a fruitful collaboration.

Now go read the whole statement. And visit the show, it’s up until the end of July with tons of events (which I will write more about later).