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Introduction: Exhibition as Social Intervention

Simon Grennan, Christopher Sperandio and Local 552 of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers’ International Union of America, documentation of We Got It! The Workforce Makes the Candy of Their Dreams, 1992–93 © the artists; photography: John McWilliams

Chicago’s scattered-site exhibition-event ‘Culture in Action’ officially took place over a period of approximately one hundred days, between May and September 1993. But many of its eight projects extended far beyond this standard timescale for a public exhibition: most began a year earlier, and at least one continues to operate today, more than twenty years later, albeit in modified form. 01 Described as a public art programme, 02 ‘Culture in Action’ involved many hundreds of individuals in its production and realisation, and provided little or nothing in the way of traditional display. As such, it offers a welcome perspective on our current post-participatory condition, in which the borders between the author-producer and participant-receiver of duration- specific public art praxis are no longer clearly delineated and the end work is the result of fields of interaction between multiple actors and agencies. 03

Processual and cooperative practices, such as those seen in ‘Culture in Action’, present us with numerous questions, such as: does the artwork’s objecthood disappear into operational methods, interventionist procedures and hard- to-find participatory moments? What happens to art when it is intended to engage with people and places under neither the relatively confined conditions of the museum or gallery, nor nomadic conditions such as biennial curatorship – when it instead gathers its audiences over a longer period? What happens when public participation becomes a negotiated space of co-production within multiple networked flows of social encounters?

Such problems mark the contested territory of the expanded field of curatorship today. 04 The debate cannot be reduced to a set of positions that exist in opposition to exhibition-making; rather, they support forms of research-based, dialogical practice in which the processual and the serendipitous overlap with speculative actions and open-ended forms of production. ‘Culture in Action’ was an experimental exhibition, in the sense that Michael Brenson describes as ‘movement into an unknown’, 05 and it continues to raise questions within myriad strands of complex public, site- specific, socially engaged and community-based art discourse (contributing artist Mark Dion notes that he receives near-monthly enquiries about ‘Culture in Action’). 06 Most importantly, perhaps, it was a durational public art event that does not allow for hasty assessment. Its projects tended to develop slowly, with inconstant results – primarily accessible to those who happened to be there at the time, an audience that would also often be an active co-producer of the work, and secondarily to those prepared to attend, equally slowly, to the documentation of the projects, which emerged through artists’ word of mouth, a catalogue and published critiques, and now the present volume. 07

‘Culture in Action’ can be situated within several simultaneous histories, as Joshua Decter explains in his contribution to this book: the conventions of large-scale public sculpture exhibitions; what might be termed ‘public art’; and conceptual and process-based artistic developments between the 1960s and 90s. 08

Its ambition was ‘to expand the limits of what could be identified or recognised as art in urban social contexts – beyond the studio, gallery, museum or alternative space’. 09 By 1993, the precedent for complex durational engagements with particular sites and ‘publics’ had been established for some time; ‘Culture in Action’ did not inaugurate this kind of work, yet it made what was happening visible on a wider scale.


Looking back over the past twenty years, we find many terms that have been inscribed upon such practices, including ‘conversational art’ (Homi K. Bhabha), ‘dialogical aesthetics’ (Grant Kester), ‘new genre public art’ (Suzanne Lacy), ‘new situationism’ (Claire Doherty), ‘connective aesthetics’ (Suzi Gablik), ‘participatory art’ (Claire Bishop) and ‘collective creativity’ (WHW). 10 Equally, ‘the educational turn’ in contemporary art and curating (Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson) and the emergence of an art of ‘social cooperation’ (Tom Finkelpearl) have, in different ways, attempted to encapsulate the social, durational and processual qualities inherent in more immaterial forms of both curatorial and artistic co-production, predominantly experienced beyond the art institutional setting or the traditional gallery frame. 11

In his contextualising contribution to this volume, Helmut Draxler proposes that ‘Culture and Action’ occurred at the tail end of a period in which two particular categories of art practice came to the fore: the exhibitionary and the discursive. 12 The exhibitionary includes ‘ways of arranging and presenting objects or displaying information; ways of addressing, assembling and guiding people; and ways of interacting symbolically with those objects or information via conversation, education, marketing or critique’, in which the discursive has become a means of intervening into the exhibitionary situation through voiced debates and targeted questioning. As Draxler argues, the emergence of these categories announced a newly decentred and dispersed cultural field, which remains current today.

Such projects might occur at the points at which the main event is critiqued from within, or when the restrictive scenarios, into which art and curatorial labour are forced, are circumvented in some way. On the part of its curator, Mary Jane Jacob, ‘Culture in Action’ was, in part, a means of sidestepping the established approach of the commissioning public art agency, Sculpture Chicago – an approach that was dominant in the US at the time. 13 It took more than eighteen months for her to convince the project’s governing board of the benefits of an arts programme in which there might be no demonstrable outcome at all, or at least none that could be determined in advance. 14 Yet some of its critics at the time perceived these unplanned outcomes as quite the opposite, seen for instance in Joe Scanlan’s concerns over the show’s proximity to ‘recent (government) guidelines that art be useful and have immediately measurable effects’. 15

Certain aspects of the programme can be understood in terms of a host-and- uninvited-guest tactic of coordination and invention, enabling parasitic curatorial or artistic labour to exist alongside, or in confrontation with, pre- existing cultural forms, originating scenarios or prescribed exhibition contexts. Just as Jacob made up ‘plausible outcomes’ for her funders where necessary, participating artists operated independently of these prescribed outcomes in order to proceed in the way their projects required. 16 In some cases, the artists would find themselves bypassed by their collaborators in view of larger agendas; Simon Grennan describes here how his and Christopher Sperandio’s project with a group of confectionary-factory workers became a tool within a larger power struggle between union president Jethro Head and factory manager Charles E. Brashears. 17 Examples such as this productively complicate the idea of instrumentalisation often associated with preselected or ‘sited’ community interactions, in which art projects begin to intersect with such a multiplicity of interests – including already-established groups and communities – that the questions raised are necessarily more intricate and unpredictable.

In order to move beyond the modern notion of a reflexive subject – a concept for which the transition between passive and active participants in art is difficult to assess – it is necessary to consider the issue of time. More specifically, how public time is framed in order that a space of co-production can emerge. This is what Bruno Latour refers to as the need for more ‘cohabitation time, the great Complicator’, where democratic space is under- stood as time spent together, publicly, in contradiction with each other. 18 Here in this volume, Hafþór Yngvason describes how a process of self- critique by public art practitioners prompted the shift from ‘integrationist’ to ‘participatory’ approaches during the early 1990s. 19 Yet, if we are to think of participation as more than a closed, one-off, relational or social interaction with art, it must take account of duration as a temporal process of cohabitation, in which time can contribute to something that is immeasurable, unquantifiable and unknowable from the outset.

This is most evident when we observe that often a number of the people contributing to durational projects are unaware of exactly what they are taking part in and what the outcome is intended to be; their participation – what has been done, who took part and what was achieved – is not something that can be measured or evaluated in any clear way. As Daniel J. Martinez and Michael Brenson reflect in their conversation here, ‘what we actually lived through, what we experienced and what we thought is unrecognisable from the way it’s been written about’.20 Such processes of being together for a period of time with some common objectives, often as a means of constituting a new mode of relational, conversational and participatory practice, tend to offer a multiplicity of modes of interaction between people. Duration also has a destabilising effect because there is no longer a fixed time and place in which to experience, or participate in, the art as event.

As Mary Jane Jacob’s contribution to this volume suggests, exhibition- making is a category in need of continual reassessment, a model to be ‘expanded, adapted, even transformed, to follow what artists do, and to enable them further’. 21 Although it is an elusive concept, the curatorial speaks to these concerns and offers means by which to understand ‘Culture in Action’. The curatorial resists the stasis of the artist-curator-spectator triumvirate and supports more semi-autonomous and self-determined aesthetic and discursive forms of practice that may overlap and intersect, rather than seeking a dialectic (image) or oppositional presentation (form). The concept does not argue either for or against exhibitions as conventionally understood – discursively led curatorial praxis includes such exhibitions among its many productive forms. While the open-endedness of recent discussions around the curatorial is undoubtedly somewhat frustrating at times, this very frustration is, perhaps, the objective. Certain articulations of the curatorial have identified a strand of practice that seeks to resist categorical resolution, preferring to function in the Adornian sense, as a constellation of activities that do not wish to fully reveal themselves.22 Rather than forcing syntheses, this idea of a curatorial constellation (as an always-emergent praxis) brings together incommensurable social objects, ideas and subject relations in order to demonstrate the structural faults and falsities inherent in the notion of the hermetic exhibition as primary curatorial work.

To the extent that ‘Culture in Action’ represents a move towards more discursive and duration-specific approaches, it raises the question of access: what happens when the primary outcome of an ongoing project is a more dispersed form of mediation, and when the artwork, the authorial voice and the exhibition site are not easy to locate – in other words, when the project does not result in single autonomous works/exhibitions to be viewed as one-off experiences? Notably, this is less a problem of access for ‘non-art’ constituencies than it is for those familiar with museums and galleries, who may restrict themselves to these usual means. For example, as part of ‘Culture in Action’, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Street-Level Video (S-LV) produced an installation at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, on display at the same time as numerous installations within their own neighbourhood on the West Side; while the project brought many members of S-LV and their neighbours to the MCA for the first time, few of the museum’s middle- and upper-class regular attendees visited Manglano-Ovalle and S-LV’s culminating block party in their West Town community. If ‘Culture in Action’ set out to broaden art’s connection to the public, indeed to pluralise its publics, then the whole programme also served to problematise what ‘public’ might mean.

The Exhibition Histories project was developed in order to examine art at the moment of its contact with publics, and the present volume – the fifth in the series – is an opportunity to take stock. The first in the series considered two shows, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (both 1969), that marked a move by curators to work more closely with artists, in order to test the institutional structures surrounding art’s display. 23 The nascent fields of exhibition histories and exhibition studies, analogous to the reflexive processes inherent to their object of analysis, continue to redefine and question their scope and limits – and there is still much work to be done. Michael Warner describes a public as a self-organised relation among strangers, 24 yet to what extent do discursive projects such as those in ‘Culture in Action’ constitute a public in themselves? Is this a public constituted in a momentary place and time, or is this a form of publicness that is post-produced – after the effect? And if so, might they contribute to emergent concepts of the curatorial, as the co-production of ‘public times’ rather than public spaces? Furthermore, at what points do they become open to encounter by persons beyond the artists and their collaborative groups – and to us today? For us, these remain open questions.

-David Morris and Paul O’Neill


  • For the latter, see the description of Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s project in this volume, p.122.
  • The full title was ‘Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago’.
  • For an assessment of more recent cooperative, duration-specific public art projects, see Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty (ed.), Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011. See also Tom Finkelpearl’s recent book, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Irit Rogoff articulates the curatorial as critical thought that does not rush to embody itself, instead raising questions that are to be unravelled over time; Maria Lind’s notion of the curatorial involves practising forms of political agency that try to go beyond the already known; Beatrice von Bismarck’s understanding of the curatorial is as a continuous space of negotiation, contributing to other processes of becoming; and Emily Pethick’s proposition of the curatorial presupposes an unbounded framework, allowing for things, ideas and outcomes to emerge in the process of being realised. See I. Rogoff, ‘Smuggling – A Curatorial Model’ in Vanessa Joan Müller and Nicolaus Schafhausen (ed.), Under Construction: Perspectives on Institutional Practice, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2006, pp.132–33; M. Lind, ‘The Curatorial’, Artforum, vol.48, no.2, October 2009, pp.103–05; B. von Bismarck, ‘Curatorial Criticality: On the Role of Freelance Curators in the Field of Contemporary Art’, in Marianne Eigenheer (ed.), Curating Critique, Frankfurt a.M.: Revolver, 2007, pp.62–69; and E. Pethick, ‘The Dog that Barked at the Elephant in the Room’, The Exhibitionist, no.4, June 2011, pp.81–82.
  • See Daniel J. Martinez and Michael Brenson in conversation in this volume, p.205. See also John Cage’s definition of an experiment as something ‘not … to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act, the outcome of which is unknown’. J. Cage, ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’, Silence: Lectures and Writings, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p.13.
  • See Mark Dion in conversation with Stephanie Smith in this volume, p.182.
  • See the comprehensive documentation and images of each ‘Culture in Action’ project in this volume, pp.67–157.
  • See Joshua Decter, ‘Culture in Action: Exhibition as Social Redistribution’, in this volume, pp.14–43.
  • Ibid .
  • See Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Conversational Art’, in Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson (ed.), Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998, pp.38–47; Grant H. Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics’, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004, pp.82–123; Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995; C. Doherty, ‘The New Situationists’, in C. Doherty (ed.), Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog, 2004, pp.7–14; Suzi Gablik, ‘Connective Aesthetics’, American Art, vol.6, no.2, Spring 1992, pp.2–7; Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012; and What, How and for Whom (WHW) (ed.), Kollektive Kreativität / Collective Creativity (exh. cat.), Frankfurt a.M.: Revolver Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2005.
  • See P. O’Neill and Mick Wilson (ed.), Curating and the Educational Turn, Amsterdam and London: de Appel and Open Editions, 2010; and T. Finkelpearl, What We Made, op. cit.
  • See Helmut Draxler, ‘The Turn from the Turns: An Avant-Garde Moving Out of the Centre (1986–93)’, in this volume, pp.44–64.
  • See M.J. Jacob, ‘Chicago is Culture in Action’, in this volume, pp.172–81. For more on the public art context at the time, see Hafþór Yngvason, ‘The New Public Art: As Opposed to What?’, in this volume, pp.158–63.
  • M.J. Jacob, ‘Chicago is Culture in Action’, in this volume, p.179.
  • See Joe Scanlan, ‘Culture in Action’, in this volume, pp.164–71.
  • M.J. Jacob, ‘Chicago is Culture in Action’, in this volume, p.180.
  • See Simon Grennan, of Grennan & Sperandio, in conversation with Lucy Steeds in this volume, pp.192–201.
  • Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in B. Latour and Peter Weibel (ed.), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (exh. cat.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005, p.40.
  • H. Yngvason, ‘The New Public Art: As Opposed to What?’, in this volume, p.161.
  • See D.J. Martinez and M. Brenson in conversation in this volume, p.202.
  • Where ‘the creative, generative, discursive, “exhibit-able” and experiential are all part of what an exhibition affords’. M.J. Jacob, ‘Chicago is Culture in Action’, in this volume, p.178.
  • ‘As a constellation, theoretical thought circles the concept it would like to unseal, hoping that it will fly open like the lock of a well-guarded safe-deposit box: in response, not to a single key or a single number, but to a combination of numbers.’ Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966) (trans. E.B. Ashton), New York: Continuum, 2007, p.163.
  • Christian Rattemeyer et al., Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
  • Michael Warner describes this relation as being constituted through mere attention, as well as being the social space created through the reflexive circulation of discourse. What this implies, in particular for contemporary public art, is that publics are dependent upon practice and entirely paradoxical, in the sense that a public is neither equivalent to an abstract unity between individuals nor reducible to the actual set of individuals that happen to constitute it at any particular moment. And it is also true that, in many cases, the moment of publicness is never fully revealed. See M. Warner, ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Public Culture, vol.14, no.1, Winter 2002, pp.49–90.