Audience Aesthetics

Audience Aesthetics: Participatory Strategies

MFA Project, Glasgow School of Art
Glasgow, Scotland, UK

Audience Aesthetics: Participatory Strategies was a workshop and exhibition that explored and embodied participatory art practices. AA:PP was produced in collaboration with Sarah F. Maloney and with the participation of 3rd year students at The Glasgow School of Art in the Fall of 2012. 

In the introduction to her book Participation, “Audience as Producers," Claire Bishop outlines three main purposes for participatory art practices:

1) Activation (of the audience)
2) Authorship (to challenge the notion of the “artist-genius”)
3) Community (the desire to create an identity within a group apart from that of a consumer)

Workshop 1 : Solo Sandwich

Each participant brought one sandwich-making ingredient to the workshop. The shared nature of the materials was important to the dialogue that would follow. We explained the framework of the session: participants would have 5 minutes to work around the shared table of ingredients to make an individual sandwich.  After each individual had completed the construction of their sandwich, the sandwiches were placed on a long plinth for the discussion to follow.

Essential questions for the discussion referred back to the Bishop text. We examined the nature of activation in the sandwich-making process and the effect the shared quality of the materials had on the individual sandwich-making experience. Participant remarks related strongly to the situated experience of the workshop: the negotiation of space around the table, their proximity to ingredients as well as the influence of others on the decision-making process (Wenger 1998, p.13). Ownership of the ingredients was tied to this decision making process and brought up the question of authorship. One participant remarked that their individual authorship was suspended by abstaining from eating – the sandwich would have been eaten already if she were the sole author.

Workshop 2 : Group Sandwich

The task was to work collectively to make one sandwich. They had 10 minutes to do this any way they chose. The result looked more like a sculpture than a sandwich: a configuration of leftover ingredients placed atop a plinth.

The following discussion addressed the situated experience of group dynamics, as well as theories of power: leadership, body language, collective compromise, collaboration and decision-making (Wenger 1998, p.13 and 15).  Participants also noted issues of value in relation to personal investment and motivation, wondering, “what I am getting out of this?” There was a problem in the structure-less-ness of the exercise – many pointed to a desire for the establishment of a working structure in advance. This unpacked a larger issue contained in many participatory practices, the notion that a lack of structure will somehow be more democratic. Yet, as we found, a lack of structure is not democratic, as it reproduces the inequities contained within interpersonal relationships of power. In her article, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, Claire Bishop writes, “It is no longer enough to say that activating the viewer tout court is a democratic act, for every art work – even the most “open-ended” – determines in advance the depth of participation that the viewer may have with it” (2004, p.78). The following workshop component was planned to address these ‘problems’ through a more considered method of planning a structure through collective input.

Workshop 3 : The Fate of the Sandwich

The final stage of AA:PP addressed many of the ‘problems’ the group encountered in the second workshop, namely the unaddressed “conceptualization of power” (Wenger 1998, p.15). The purpose was to collectively decide what to do with all the sandwiches after establishing a structure for how the decision would be reached, building the “formation of social configuration” or collectivity (Wenger 1998, p.14).  Workshop 3 unfolded the notion of authorship to include the entire group as collaborators in the creation of the structure for the work.  This methodology was in contrast to that of Workshop 1 and 2, where Sarah and the writer set the parameters, thus retaining authorship. The group spent 10 minutes making 2 lists: 1) “what will we do with the sandwiches” and 2) “how will we decide”. The input of all participants was included in these lists.

The group read through the suggestions on both lists, but found that even with collective suggestions for parameters, there still needed to be one individual to facilitate the decision.  The writer suggested that the group take turns stating what each would want to happen – the group could then decide together how to move forward after hearing all opinions. The group collectively decided to cut the sandwiches and eat half of their own. The remaining negotiations occurred between the authors of each sandwich and others who wanted to try different sandwiches.

Workshop Conclusion

We concluded AA:PP with a discussion relating each aspect of the workshop to the 3 purposes of participatory art 1) Activation, 2) Authorship and 3) Community outlined by Claire Bishop.  Our conversation ranged beyond the parameters of the workshop to an interrogation of methods of socially engaged practice and its power to affect change; concerns relating strongly to the notion of community.  The conclusion to the discussion referred to the importance of the relationship between the artist (who sets a project’s parameters) and the community of participants of the project. These participants must be considered in the development of a participatory work, which was a strong consideration in the planning of AA:PP.

Audience Aesthetics : The Exhibit

In the exhibit, we presented 3 large-format photographs documenting the three most important aspects of the workshop (see above). Two of the photographs, Solo Sandwich and Group Sandwich, were presented as work by Sarah F. Maloney and Keeley Marie Stitt. These images were documents of the first 2 workshops, in which we retained authorship by outlining the parameters of the activities. Alongside these images were notes and lists from the day’s discussions, chalk drawings on the floor, a table full of text resources and a projected slideshow of images taken during the workshop.

Audience Aesthetics: Participatory Practices and Audience Aesthetics: The Exhibit both fall into the realm of ‘pedagogic projects’ defined by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells (2012, p.241-274).  In the case of both events, teaching was treated as an artistic medium that included ‘relational’ practices as well as discussions containing high-level intellectual content (Bishop 2012, p.245).  The learning community cultivated through the project was extended to a secondary audience through the presentation of workshop documentation as well as the transmission of experience related by workshop participants who returned to the exhibit that evening.

Project Conclusion

Through the workshop and exhibition, we interrogated participatory practices through the lens provided by Claire Bishop’s three main purposes: 1) Activation, 2) Authorship and 3) Community. While each participant shared in the mutual activity of sandwich making in workshops 1 and 2, physical activation was not enough to establish shared authorship or a democratic community. For participants to claim true authorship, the structure of a work must include the input of the participants. When participants are activated in the creation of a project’s parameters, the level of personal investment is increased and a shared community based on trust is built. Therefore, participatory art works that include, at the outset, both the participant’s individual physical involvement as well as the participant’s mental involvement will be most successful in provoking activation and authorship which will then lead to the creation of a community.


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BISHOP, C. (2012) Pedagogic Projects: ‘How do you bring a classroom to life as if it were a work of art?’. In: BISHOP, C. Artificial Hells. London: Verso, pp.241-274.

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