The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents


Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012) pp. 11-40


[on Debord]

Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps – however small – to repair the social bond.

[Bishop cites a number of writers]


Alongside a discourse of spectacle, advanced art of the last decade has seen a renewed affirmation of collectivity and a denigration of the individual, who becomes synonymous with the values of Cold War liberalism and its transformation into neoliberalism, that is, the economic practice of private property rights, free markets and free trade.

Even if a work of art is not directly participatory, references to community, collectivity (be this lost or actualised) and revolution are sufficient to indicate a critical distance towards the neoliberal new world order. Individualism, by contrast, is viewed with suspicion, not least because the commercial art system and museum programming continue to revolve around lucrative single figures.

Participatory projects in the social field therefore seem to operate with a twofold gesture of opposition and amelioration. They work against dominant market imperatives by diffusing single authorship into collaborative activities that, in the words of Kester, transcend ‘the snares of negation and self-interest’.


Instead of supplying the market with commodities, participatory art is perceived to channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change.


But the urgency of this social task has led to a situation in which socially collaborative practices are all perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art, because all are equally essential to the task of repairing the social bond.

While sympathetic to the latter ambition, I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyse and compare this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated, even while the category of art remains a persistent exclusion in bates about such projects.

[discussion of New Labour policies and result for arts funding]


[Bishop critiques Francois Matarasso’s report]

[…] social participation is viewed positively because it creates submissive citizens who respect authority and accept the ‘risk’ and responsibility of looking after themselves in the face of diminished public services.

The social inclusion agenda is therefore less about repairing the social bond than a mission to enable all members of society to be self-administrating, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world. As such, the neoliberal idea of community doesn’t seek to build social relations, but rather to erode them […]

[Discussion of recent politics and ‘Big society’]

The UK is not alone in this tendency. Northern Europe has experienced a transformation of the 1960s discourse of participation, creativity and community; these terms no longer occupy a subversive, anti-authoritarian force, but have become a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy. From the 1990s to the crash in 2008, ‘creativity’ was one of the major buzz words in the ‘new economy’ that came to replace heavy industry and commodity production.

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