During a recent forum around participatory art the group discussion veered into the contentious territory of ethics. Good old-fashioned cheating, lying and manipulating, or if you prefer the more fashionable euphemisms: agency, invitation and exchange. These vices and virtues don’t really match up but in terms of what I am about to discuss they do begin to relate. Having spent years honing a set of ethical standards for working in live situations, at its core a pledge that if I seek to ‘move’ someone they are able to ‘move’ me too, I was somewhat taken aback to be accused in the forum of being dishonest with the public. Did my willing vulnerability not justify the convoluted game play of my artistic endeavours? Either way it got me thinking.
If we accept as a given the small conceit most artists harbour of noble intent there’s still no getting round the fact that messing with people in public is very messy. Few would disagree that audience participation within a traditional theatre context marks the bottom of the abusive art power scale. Nobody likes being bullied into acting against their will or better judgement, but as we move up the scale towards more subtle forms of coercion like bribery or false representation do we feel equally uncomfortable?
Let me describe the infringement in question: My colleague, Torie Nimmervoll, and I are Prismatic Auditors. We are also of course, artists who have fabricated an otherwise non-existent ‘job’ and by extension a type of business. This business involves a set of rituals and processes loosely based around a playful social survey. The term audit has been hijacked with all its connotations of certainty and officiality to play off against the deeply subjective experience of colour. We are Prismatic Auditors when we engage in those processes, just like one is a teacher when one teaches and a cleaner when one cleans.
In order to audit a community we need the members of that community to take part. This involves an intense period of explanation, reassurance and gentle persuasion prior to the audit period. It is where we negotiate the play-space of the work and establish the nature of our future interactions with the participants. During this entry phase Torie and I believe that we must be “only what we are doing”, meaning that when potential participants look at us funny and say “Are you guys serious, why are you doing this?” and “what are the results of the audit for?” we do not respond by saying we are artists doing a project where we pretend to be auditors to try and get you to do what we want because we are convinced of the greater good of our cultural agendas. We answer by explaining what the audit is and does. It is a genuine data and narrative gathering exercise that relates personal choice to collective representation. All aspects of the audit process are open for the participant to influence, respond to, and improvise with. Except the meta/artistic explanation of why the Prismatic Auditors exist.
Does this make us liars and ethical infringers? I believe not, for these reasons.
There is play and there is fiction but there is no falsehood. We are not seeking a specific set of data nor do we draw conclusions from the results beyond their source context. The data is fed back to the participants throughout the process and there is no candid camera or content to be manipulated at a later date. The language and aesthetics of the project are an obvious parody of corporate efficiency but the deadpan tone of the work is not intended as mockery. It is more a device to soften the dryness of the process. If anybody is made to feel ridiculous, it is us.
The Prismatic Audit is a system for playing with the construction and function of meaning within different social environments. The fact that someone is yellow for three days and green for two then purple for five could mean nothing and everything. Our function and the way in which we are perceived within each community must be negotiable and uncertain. It has to be both a genuine statistically accurate process as well as a complete absurdity. Yes our participants need to ‘play along’ and it is always their choice to do so. But we are not asking for their involvement as an act or special case art project that is granted its eccentricities and safely distanced, but as a functioning if somewhat strange addition to the mundanities of daily routine. Only by existing, or at the very least attempting to exist alongside the ‘normal’ is the audit able to be both satire and celebration.
Our lie if you wish to call it that is a necessary one.
Perhaps the perception of this issue is more about where one places the frame of a work and how that frame is perceived. Live art often establishes unusual zones of play and artists chose public situations because of their inherent uncertainty – they are good spaces for developing and maintaining a necessary doubt around what exactly the work is, why it is there and who might become involved. This can at times leave people floundering for the frame but we must be careful that in our attempt to make ethically sound work we do not end up with comfortable subversion and sanctioned satire. Are full disclosures and statements of intent really necessary or are we just scared of not being nice?
If you are a punter in the community where the Prismatic Audit is about to take place and you need things to be clear, certain and understood then perhaps you aren’t someone we can work with. The entry process offers up a set of very considered, and we believe fairly obvious indicators in the form of objects, language, and approach that define the play zone. Engineering a specific type of engagement does create exclusivity within the work, but it also avoids the need to constantly cart around the cumbersome baggage of why a project is art, let alone artistically worthy. Torie and I are not interested in trying to dupe and manipulate a general public we are interested in activating a committed one.
If thinly disguised manipulation is really what we do I hope it is not felt as crude coercion, rather clever orchestration. The works of participatory art that I admire are those that encompass and shift me whilst making me feel like I was the one doing it all along. There are no explanations of context and intent, I just have the sensation that I have taken part in something unusual that resonates with meaning. As the British poet and satirist Samuel Butler said: The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.
Writing this confessional defence has prompted me to consider the idea of a small corner of webspace – perhaps LALA, where artists might submit their accounts of ethical doubt or transgression. A project went to far, somebody made you feel a bit dirty, why not get it off your chest, let the community suggest penance and forgive your sins.
All liars welcome.