Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Re: Participation

Markus Miessen and David Goldenberg

Markus Miessen: Many thanks for your offer to do a conversation like this—I look at this as an open letter exchange. I have read with excitement and care your conversation with artist and theorist Patricia Reed, which I very much enjoyed. Here are some of my thoughts and questions. It seems that from the conversation that you had there is a series of strands of thinking that I would like to comment on: one is addressing participation as a methodology and its tools, one is about initializing projects that critically 
develop through a duality of authors and actors, and one is Claire Bishop’s suggestion that participation simply replicates a Christian mode of self-sacrifice, i.e., a model in which the practitioner (of whatever kind) has been turned (or turned him/herself) into a kind of good-doer.

Personally, I am least interested in the last approach. This, to me, is a primary example of what I would call the practitioner as social worker being influenced by a democratic constituency, i.e., opening up one’s own practice to contributions by others that one is inviting in to participate from the outside. Right now, I am more interested in the reverse: an almost authorial position through which one enters existing force fields from the outside, opening up potential conflict zones within existing practices. My feeling is that one of the weaknesses of current participatory practices is that responsibility is often outsourced. What I would like to propose instead is a return towards accountability. Regarding non-consensual modes of practice, I think it is very important to distinguish between modes of collaboration versus modes of cooperation, as suggested and developed by Florian Schneider. So, my main question in regards to what I have read seems to be the following: Did Someone Say Responsibility?

I am talking from the position of someone involved in architecture and spatial practices. On a micro scale—through various home improvement programs on TV—laypeople now believe themselves to be architects, generating a populist, default consensus kind of taste that is alien to most architects. On a macro scale, consensus has eaten up the core of the State, meaning that everything will be dealt with in terms of pragmatics while participation (the buzzword of the 90s) has become a rogue tool for political legitimization. The post-political society”2 (read footnote)”:#note2 that Chantal Mouffe refers to is one in which we are constantly being told that the partisan model of politics has been overcome. There is no more Left and Right—there is a consensus at the centre, 
in which there is no possibility for an alternative.

Patricia Reed calls this a “diluted” notion of participation, and I agree with her reading of “the association with populism and the gentrification of aesthetic forms for easy reception” is pretty spot on. I have written extensively on issues of participation as a strategic tool for political legitimization, which is exactly what is happening in the UK. I totally agree with your criticism when it comes to the UK art industry. This is precisely why there is a serious need for the creation of agonistic publics as well as its urban counterpart, that of public space. When I say public space, I do not refer to landscape architecture, but to the becoming-spatial of political forms of exchange—an agonistic forum. A reverse reading of New Labour’s social romanticism is urgently needed, one which starts from the hypothesis that not everything can be decided by everyone. Such a reading instead assumes responsibility of the individual in participatory practices rather than giving up that responsibility through democratic shareholding. Thus, in this new reading, someone needs to be in charge—albeit without a mandate.

If you resist something, the most important thing is that you know what you are resisting, and there are not many seriously political projects that I can think of which understand this idea. What I am slightly scared about is that many practitioners within the field tend to fall into the default romantic, leftist mode of politics as soon as they consider “the political.” This is not to say that I would rather not have them locate their political ideas left of centre—not at all—but rather that project-making of an “alternative spatial practice” kind should aim to go beyond small, well-informed audiences from the same cultural milieu, but to try to address larger publics without becoming populist. 

I would like to try to make a really terrible generalization here about architecture, arguing that, roughly speaking, one can divide the entire field of architecture and urbanism into two kinds of practitioners. First, those whom I would call “peer architects,” whose individual or collective practice mainly concerns the production of work that will challenge the field of architecture and produce discourse within it. And secondly, those whom I would call “external architects,” who are interested, of course, in architecture and its physical becoming, but are more interested in the effect that these interventions have vis-à-vis other fields of knowledge, and, in particular, what kind of space/time relationships their work generates in terms of users. I have to admit I am much more interested in the latter position (the external architect), which I would argue has a more critical attitude. Fundamentally, the external architect’s critical position is not only his or her willingness to work outside and alongside the discipline, but to adopt a projective and optimistic approach or perspective. Without optimism, we can give up straight away. One should always attempt to turn any situation into something that is essentially optimistic at its core. Consequently, any decision making becomes projective and productive in an energetic way, rather than being bitter and simply critical. Critique is not enough. Also, I am not sure if I would call it critique per se. We are talking about different ways of doing things. That is also why I differentiate between the figure of the nerd as opposed to the polymath. In order to take this conversation forward, we need to be pro-active, we need to put our views, ideas, and actual proposals into action. If things are only ever discussed in terms of discourse or theoretical frameworks, they are, of course, very difficult to test. The default defense-mode of an architect is, therefore, always: “Well, at least I am doing something,” i.e., I am not “just” thinking. I think the binary opposition doesn’t help at all: what we need is a middle ground. 

Chantal Mouffe has written extensively on the struggle of politics and the radical heart of democratic life, trying to understand why in the kind of society we are living in today, which she calls a post-political society, there is an increasing disaffection with democratic institutions. Her main thesis, if I may say so, is that the dimension of the political is something that is linked to the dimension of conflict that exists in human societies: an ever-present possibility of antagonism. The reason why I have been very interested in this exchange was to understand how this agonistic struggle could be imagined and tested in spatial settings and frameworks, which would allow us to envisage a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus, as Chantal says, a “consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation.” Democratic processes should aim to supply an arena in which differences can be confronted. Agonism as a constructive form of political conflict might offer an opportunity for constructive expression of disagreements. From my point of view, this becomes most interesting on an institutional scale, a microcosm that essentially could reflect society at large. The post-political society that Chantal refers to is one, in which we are constantly being told that the partisan model of politics has been overcome, that there is no more Left and Right: there is this kind of consensus at the centre, in which there is really no possibility for an alternative. This is precisely why there is a serious need for the creation of agonistic publics and public spaces. When I say public space, I refer to the becoming-spatial of political forms of exchange. One could argue that any form of participation is already a form of conflict. In order to participate in an environment or a given situation, one needs to understand the forces of conflict that act upon that environment. How can one move away from romanticized notions of participation into more pro-active, conflictual models of engagement? And architecture is always political as it is the result of a complex structure of decision making processes, both public and private in nature. Therefore, architecture also always produces new social realities, as space structures relationships between people, be it in a positive or negative way.

Of course, there is this recent phenomenon of “the political”—everyone should be allowed to make up his or her mind about it. What is slightly irritating is if people claim it simply because it seems to be an “of the moment” thing. I would suggest that we don’t think about issues or ways of practicing as outdated or en vogue, but rather, and this might sound almost hippyesque, that everyone should just be doing what they are most happy doing, what they are interested in, and what they think they are best at. In regards to building, I am interested in designing spaces for social, educational, and critical exchange of knowledge, such as small institutions, libraries, or exhibition spaces. In order to facilitate these spatial concerns, involvement in content is crucial. I don’t think that designing containers without considering what it holds will enable us to question, challenge, or develop any existing modes of operation.

What I refer to does not necessarily relate to forms of opposition, but alternative regimes of entry. How does one manage to gain access into fields of knowledge and practices that one is usually not invited to take part in? I don’t think that negating will get you anywhere as a response. It’s like opposition; very often it is a way for cynics to illustrate their impotence. Maybe I am a romantic driven by relentless optimism, but I genuinely believe that change is possible. And in case this does not happen through a client—the client needs to be invented or self-generated. Constructive criticism through offering alternatives is always more fruitful than simply being reactive. There are think tanks and other collectives and groups that have, of course, been working on outsiders’ expertise for a long time—i.e., strategic consulting and so forth. One thing that I find quite problematic about conventional consulting though is that it takes almost for granted that things have to change, i.e., if you look at McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, or PricewaterhouseCoopers, these guys come into a company, city, or even country (like in the case of Bahrain) and tell them how to change things. There is this unspoken rule that if they do not alter existing realities, frameworks, and customs, they are not worth the money. It is terrible, because often, even if something turns out to be structurally sound, these consulting firms change things to illustrate that they represent a worthy investment. A different and better approach I like is that of someone, who in the British parliamentary system would be called a cross-bench politician, with no ties to the political parties in play. AMO,”3 (read footnote)”:#note3 of course, have tried that for a while now, sometimes with remarkable success, like in the Europe project, sometimes with less success, not because they haven’t done good work, but because it still takes some time for others to understand the value of the architect’s strategic expertise as an outsider that can challenge and critically add to existing institutional, economic, social, or governmental frameworks. I am currently working on a book, my Ph.D., which is titled The Nightmare of Participation—Potentials and Traps for the Uninvited Outsider. In it, I am trying to deal with some of those questions. How can one propose an alternative practice engaging in spatial projects dealing with social and political realities? What could a polyphonic spatial practice potentially be? Spatial planning is often considered the management of spatial conflicts. The progressive institution exists as a social and spatial conflict zone, re-negotiating its limits through constant transformation. To deal with conflicts, critical decision-making must evolve. Such decision-making is often pre-supposed as a process whose ultimate goal is that of consensus. My thesis proposes to foster micro-political participation in the production of space and ask the question of how one can contribute to alien fields of knowledge, professions, or discourses from the point of view of “space.” It is my belief that through cyclical specialization, the future spatial practitioner could arguably be understood as an outsider who—instead of trying to set up or sustain common denominators of consensus—enters existing situations or projects by deliberately instigating conflictual realities 
between often delineated fields of knowledge.

I am very fond of Chantal’s proposal to think both “with and against Schmitt,” referring to the political theorist and German jurist Carl Schmitt. This is a good example for how to operate: to no longer discuss and foster endless differences, but to also move forward in a constructive manner. I think optimism and a constructive ambition is generally the way to go. You are absolutely right—to simply fetishize the possibility of difference, to crave conflict and antagonism for the sake of it does neither produce meaningful debate nor praxis. I really believe that architecture, as outlined by Volume awhile ago, needs to go beyond itself. To be more precise, this could entail that instead of just trying to react against, we actually try to find the weak point of the system under debate and try to work on them, not in the sense of Modernist problem-solving or a social engineering exercise, but by altering and tweaking some of its variables. There is a certain naïveté at play when some people talk about opposing capitalism. This also holds true for capitalism within architecture. To just say developers are the bad guys is not only defensive, but propels neither discourse nor practice. I would be interested, for example, in working with a large-scale developer in order to rethink housing for the elderly, a project that we have been working on for a while now through a think tank at the Serpentine Gallery. One of the more general problems we are facing today is that most practitioners are no longer willing to take risks. This comes along with a fear of making decisions, which, together, is a lethal cocktail. Capitalism, of course, is the one system that manages to identify, embrace, and embody—vis-à-vis its own tactics—any other system and/or opposing force and critique rapidly. This is one of the reasons why our own positions, i.e., yours and mine, are very endangered. We could probably quite easily come up with more or less smart frameworks for alternative programs, but one must be aware that they get eaten up very quickly by someone else, and I would strongly recommend to make sure that one is in touch with that “someone else” rather than letting those forces hijack ideas and misinterpret, develop, and sell them themselves. If they buy into something smart it is simply better than if they buy into something stupid.

There is something about involvement; if you get too close, you cannot stay objective, I think. Many leftist projects face this problem: they interpret participation as a means of becoming a service provider for a democratic community. I have recently been thinking about this a lot. It is strange to me that a particular politics seems to be understood always in tandem with a particular style. It is almost as if, in order to come across as serious, you also need to follow a certain protocol in terms of how to do things, even to the extent of how you look. It’s like choosing between the styles and protocols of Carhartt and Martin Margiela. There seems to be a consensus within the critical left, in architecture and urbanism, that dislikes the idea of doing serious work and still having fun, or, indeed, trying to look like you care. To give some examples in terms of the books I have worked on collaboratively in the recent past, such as Did Someone Say Participate?, With/Without, or The Violence of Participation, we have always tried to combine the super serious with the slightly mirthful and geeky. I think it always helps to lose control of one’s primary expertise at some point. One has to be able to let go, otherwise the nerdy turns against you.

I think the question of urgency is always a misleading one, because it assumes that certain things have value and others do not. I find it quite difficult to draw the line here. I guess the only hopefully meaningful thing that I can say about this is that, personally, I am very interested in a particular discussion about urban and social frameworks in relation to architectural scale space, how that can affect the design process, and the way in which institutions might function. One of the reasons why many things in this world exist as they do is because of its spatial context. This holds true even for institutional procedures, habits, and practices. From my point of view, a smart architecture does not deliver a sexy rendering, but a complex operational and curatorial procedure.

David Goldenberg: 
I have read through your first letter a few times and I think I have understood a few points now, so I have picked out what I think are the key points you are making in order to start the conversation.

The first points I want to address are around your observations on participatory practices and are, in many respects, counter to my own position, which is the reason we have been asked to undertake this exchange. They are as follows:

- A practitioner as a social worker influenced by a democratic constituency—i.e., 
opening up one’s own practice to the contribution by others that one is inviting into participate from the outside

- An almost authorial position through which one enters existing force fields from the outside, opening up potential conflict zones within existing practices

- Non-consensual modes of practice

- Accountability

- Participation as a political tool in a post-political society, where the partisan model of politics has been overcome

- That not everything can be decided by everyone, someone needs to be in charge. The nightmare of participation—potentials and traps for the outsider

The text that I produced for Fillip with Patricia Reed on participation developed from a series of online debates that I staged in the Post Autonomy”4 (read footnote)”:#note4 chat room, which attempted to uncover the logic inherent in participatory practices, that, at the same time, looked for new spaces for art, and to interrogate a Eurocentric art’s global role. What I was intrigued by was the complexity of locating a precise understanding of participatory practices, but simultaneously why the issue and problem of participation constantly returns. The role of a participatory practice, as defined by systems theory,”5 (read footnote)”:#note5 is integral to the formation of the concept of Post Autonomy that I have been working with for the past ten years. With Post Autonomy, I have intended to precisely offer solutions and responsibility within a contemporary cultural practice, opening up a space to address problems the very institutions of art are unwilling or unable to solve against the failure of practices of institutional critique. So the issue of where exists the position to address the problems of the system (i.e, inside the system or elsewhere) is key to my own practice and the arguments you have outlined. It is also a question of who lays claims to solving these problems, which, again, surface in thinking about my own practice and, of course, to you in your own. I am unsure what is happening now, but it is striking that there appears to be a need for key players in the art world to declare publicly that solutions exists only inside the system! Nevertheless, I personally don’t actually believe any real attempt has been made to address the existing system in any fundamental way.

How do we evaluate a practice that critiques a Eurocentric tradition of art? I think I should say that I agree with many of the points you have made about the problems with participatory practices—and that it is necessary to establish a space for conflicting opinions, this was stated very clearly throughout the first text. However, I don’t think I agree with you concerning your critique of a type of participatory practice that offers entry points for outsiders into the privileged space of dominant culture (or, as I would prefer to say, of non-art specialists or non-European cultures into a project) to test out hierarchical positions and roles in contemporary culture, along with the role of a Eurocentric tradition of art in a global context. The problem is that so many practices are categorized as participatory while, at the same time, they show the clearest evidence of how institutions have absorbed the practice and thinking of participation, so that it is often difficult to distinguish between different models of participatory work. Behind your distrust of this type of participatory practice lies, I suspect, the prevalent type of participatory practice that evolved in the 1950s in America, which sought to seduce people into engaging with products and culture, which is still evident in the majority of participatory practices operating in the art world or art institutions today. What I do agree with you on is that the majority of these practices are ineffective. It is also equally true that under neoliberalism participatory artists, in the form of community art, are asked to fill the gaps left by the collapse of the state in the form of surrogate social work, highlighted by the work of Superflex and Nils Norman. Superflex embodies all the problems with neoliberal art practices, or to be brutally honest, they represent the clearest example of colonial practice. Their work mimics that of NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations that adopt the European ideology of humanism, where there is an engagement with or interference in different countries and cultures that crosses political boundaries on the pretext of offering limited practical aid to poor, underprivileged people. Whereas Nils Norman’s work replicates a similar practice for a local audience, an art practice in the form of an outreach worker who travels out into different public locations to a show presents the positive face of art to the underprivileged or undereducated class. The reasoning for practitioners to offer their time and limited resources to assist the underprivileged is politically naïve and ill thought through and basically replicates what Martha Rosler perceived as the gentrification of urban settings through art.

So, what we actually have is a situation where we virtually have no successful examples of a model of participation, and an insufficient understanding of how the form of participatory practice I advocate actually functions. The reason for this is that I suspect something else is happening, which is far more difficult to grasp—how the cultural and political protocols of different cultures are framed and take place before our very eyes.

The next points that you raised and that I want to address are: 

- How can one propose an alternative practice engaging in spatial projects dealing with social and political realities?

- The progressive institution exists as a social and spatial conflict zone, re-negotiating its limits through constant transformation.

- To be more precise, this could entail that instead of just trying to react against something, we actually try to find the weak point in the system under debate and try to work on them, not in the sense of a Modernist problem solving or social engineering exercise, but altering and tweaking some of its variables. 

As I write, I am in Eindhoven finishing a residency at the Vanabbemuseum plug-in venue your-space. I have come to think of your-space after three to four weeks of working here as a new type of space that has as yet no name nor clearly defined role. However, your-space was invented by Charles Esche as a space that is part of the museum, but outside the museum, to question the role of the organization and to develop strategies for engaging new audiences for art. Hence the name your-space, a meeting point, or hub, for the public—except this is a working class town, whose residents are not interested in middle class culture. So the space highlights a common problem concerning who is part of culture or whose culture gets disseminated.

Key to the project I am working on is the development of strategies for participation, to test out participation and to understand the implementation of a participatory practice within the context of your-space, since both context and positioning is crucial to staging my projects. The project extends a project I first staged at the Istanbul Biennial in 2007 that looked at using the mental image of post autonomy to address problems inherent in the existing system/model of art and to look at resolving and finding solutions to problems the system is unwilling or unable to resolve, including the use of art in a global context and the role biennials and documenta play in this process. So occupying a venue that is at once part of the museum but reflecting on the role of the museum and the very venue the project occupies appears a logical step forward in developing this thinking. At the same time, fundamental to the project is imagining a space outside a Eurocentric tradition of art, which is an attempt to think beyond the existing construction of contemporary culture and look for new potentialities.

Not only is the Vanabbemuseum involved in rethinking the role of the museum, it is also involved from within the museum to develop strategies and projects—under the concept of plug-ins—to involve the audience and members of the public to engage with the museum and its collection in a variety of ways. Another key/core task is to link Eastern and Western cultural histories, especially with its large collection of
El Lissitzky’s work, particularly the important Proun room. So it was a happy coincidence that within a week of my stay there just so happened to be a launch of a project by the Russian/Serbian collective Chto Delat, which refers to the famous quote from Lenin “What’s to be done?” and whose project consists of interrogating participatory practices along with the interrogation of existing mind sets and inherited cultural histories, and to design architectural spaces for art in the form of an “Activist club,” which is neither a gallery nor museum space. The Vanabbemuseum is closely linked with the project space BAK, which is located in Utrecht, and qualifies as another postmodern architecture venue that looks at Deleuze’s concept of the fold and repetition, as well as memory, and how memories and the past can inform the present, primarily through the staging of re-enactments, and that raises the question of how it is possible for change to take place in society. Both venues see their role as art institutions to initiate projects that frame an idea of the possibility and potentiality of political change in society inside the art institution at a time when change is either absent or not obvious within society, which itself is in crisis.

At the same time, I should mention another project that also attempts to find solutions to the existing system of art—a project by Public Space in a roof at the Smart Project Space in Amsterdam entitled Endless Installation: A Ghost Story for Adults. It is a project that looked at taking Deleuzian, rhizomatic thinking even further, but also sought to gel together three different solutions to the problem of the white cube’s static space, through constructing an ever changing flexible exhibition framework, whereby each individual who wandered through the exhibition was able to knit together their own unique narrative through combining image, information, and space. After the presentation they showed two films, a recent film by the political filmmaker Alexander Kluge called The Magic of the Darkened Soul (2008) plus All Emotions Believe in a Happy Ending (2002)_,_ a documentary by Angelika Wittlich on Kluge, which included interviews with Jürgen Habermas and excerpts of a film by New German filmmakers, including Kluge, in response to the deaths of members of the Red Army Brigade imprisoned in the mid 1970s, raising the question, in very startling terms, how does change take place in society? Is it through violence, critique, art, or the process of law? Who makes these changes in society and politics? And, what is the role of the artist in making changes and in politics? I am of the opinion that none of these issues can be addressed within the existing model or framework of art, and that many of these issues, if they are addressed, are only illustrated or simulated within this model.

To return to the plug-ins, in 2006, Hyunjin Kim presented plugin 03, The Undeclared Crowd, which addressed Chantal Mouffe’s work The Democratic Paradox (2000) and outlined the concept of the friendly enemy, or agonism, or antagonistic friends. The project proposed that friends share a common, symbolic space, but friends become enemies when each wants to organize that space differently.

Goldenberg: A few more thoughts...

After sending my last response to you, I was very much aware that it was inadequate and that I had not addressed the core aspect of your argument, so I have decided to send you further thoughts. What would be useful is if you could clarify one or two further points.

I think what you are sketching out amounts to a rethinking of the overall purpose of art in society. This is all very sensible, however, I am not convinced that at the end of the day any practice has to necessarily inhabit this scenario, since it strikes me as prescriptive. What I do agree with you about is that practitioners do need to take more responsibility for their practice, and if they are doing so, which tools are available to them for understanding more precisely the overall impact of their practice, and what options are available for practitioners to do something differently? 
I am also not clear on how the practice you have outlined for yourself as an archi-tect differs from the so-called participatory do-gooders’ practice that you find problematic. I am not so sure how this practice materializes difference, and, therefore, promotes actual democracy! As far as I can see, from the little understanding 
I have of your practice, you appear to be engaged in promoting the quality of engagement in existing institutions, whether galleries or libraries, etc..., which can only be good, but does it do more than this? Moreover, I am not so clear on how your participatory practice actually constitutes a participatory practice, unless you are mapping out a client-artist relationship. So is it possible for you to clarify the differences between the two practices and how you imagine why a practice is required to address the problems you sketched out?

The other points you have made, especially around the role and limits of theory versus a more materialist, pragmatic practice, and how that practice is capable of bringing about possible changes, raise issues that I am thinking about all the time. Again, how to establish visibility, cultural capital, and power, are, of course, issues all practitioners are involved in. While how to understand the language and institutions that disseminate hegemonic cultural power are the problems that preoccupy my thinking now, although I am very much aware of the failure of recent institutional critique practices, so my thinking and practice look at resolving this shortcoming. Who has access to cultural power is, of course, the point of what we are addressing, and whether other cultures and classes are eligible to access this power. At the same time, I am of the opinion it is not at all necessary for anyone to engage in hegemonic culture, nor do I think that it is at all necessary that there ought to be just one cultural platform that different cultures and classes have access to. The fact that no other platform exists for other cultures and classes to access the main problem, and also reflects the closing down of choice and so-called democracy in the UK, although there is a massive popularization and normalization of modernist art and art history, at the sacrifice of difference and quality. And, I think it is precisely the overwhelming success of conservative thinking and class that is the problem you have outlined, but I am not convinced that this situation is entrenched. 

Finally, I am not sure that going about strengthening the existing cultural models, practices, authorial positions, and retaining this orthodoxy, solves anything.

  1. See Florian Schneider, “Collaboration: The Dark Site of the Multitude,”,
  2. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005).

  3. The counterpart studio to Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

  4. Post Autonomy is a project and Web site developed by David Goldenberg “intended to function as a meeting place and hub for discussion and exchange of ideas that extend an understanding of Post Autonomy.” See

  5. See Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (New York: George Braziller, rev. ed. 1976). Von Bertalanffy developed this biological theory as a framework for the study of organisms as phenomena that 
operate within ecosystems in interdependent rather than independent activity. 

  6. See Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here, ed. Brian Wallis (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991).
About the Authors

Markus Miessen is an architect and writer. His books include The Nightmare of Participation (2011), Institution Building (2009), and East Coast Europe (2009). He is the founder of the Winter School Middle East, founding partner of nOffice, Berlin, and recently became a professor for Critical Spatial Practice at the Städelschule, Frankfurt.

David Goldenberg is a London-based artist and founder of the Post-Autonomy website (, where regular debates about Post-Autonomy take place.

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