oturn home > Sketch: index page > An essay on community and communication in art

An essay on community and communication in art

A disclaimer

I first called this text: 'The ideology of community and communication in art' but returning to it, I feel such a derogatory headline would indicate a position of judgement from an elevated position, a critique of false consciousness, etc. While I feel tempted to do just that, I also feel implicitly as much observed, judged and condemned as I observe, judge and condemn. In other words, there is no position of practicing art (or of reinquishing or negating such practice) which I think of as superior to the 'community and communication' approach. It just so happened that I have felt uneasy and incapable of engaging in it in a generous way, which may be as much my own defect as an index of problems with the approach itself.

Some sources

I will refer to several recent sources dealing with community, communication, dialogical or conversational art:

  1. Stefan Beck ed. 2004: 'Thing book. Arbeit im Netz. Eine Andere Kunst ist möglich' (download as pdf)
  2. Eduardo Kac 1999: "Negotiating meaning: the dialogic imagination in electronic art"
  3. Grant H. Kester 2004: 'Conversation Pieces. Community and Communication in modern art'
  4. Miwon Kwon 1998: Public Art and Urban Identities' Originally a talk at The Photograpghy Institute, Columbia University, since version apparently given in Hamburg
  5. Kurd Alsleben/Antje Eske ed. 2004: 'Mutualität in Netzkunstaffairen'


If only for the reason that there is this stream of objects that keep going, going on, there is something intriguing and agreeable about an attitude that relinquishes the production of objects and instead brings about a (social, participatory) space which constitutes the art work.

Park fiction here in Hamburg is one example. Artists have set up a container, talk to and invited people in the neighbourhood, let them play with ideas for a park that will be built at the site, provide the means (paper, crayons, kneading dough, etc) document and process results.

On the other hand, the claim to the register of art seems somewhat dubious, valorising an exchange that could happen in a similar way (perhaps even in a more 'authentic' way?) without being framed as an art event. Much of this type of work (including many examples in the Kester book) seems just a design or (social) engineering process that is simply done properly, i.e. done by fully involving the community, much as an architect might involve future users of a building.

Many examples of community and communication art are very close to 'design', and this means that they share the idea of improving the world bit by bit through consensual action. By the same token, there is no place for revolutionary politics or the idea of a movement in explicit non-negotiable opposition to the status quo (whatever the chances of practical political action). In some cases, the artist is a mere conduit or catalyst, in others, he or she sees the 'modeling of [the own] subjectivity' or 'redefinition of [the own] self' through dialogue and 'empathetic identification' (Mary Field Belenky quoted in Kester) as part of the outcome.

Some stated aims

One epistemological difference between community and communication art and common conversation is that the 'action' is registered and understood by participants as an art event, which often implies that it is recorded, narrated, documented, possibly re-used in exhibition or media contexts, and may become subject to secondary work. In many of the cases of community art related in Kester, a common theme is also the reference to some heteronomous social context, where art becomes a conduit of interaction and mutual awareness, presumably raising solidarity within a group or against some external threat. A conversational piece of work may aim to reduce the levels of distrust and prejudice between Latino and African-American teenagers and the police force, as in the work The roof is on fire by Suzanne Lacy, Annice Jacoby, and Chris Johnson described in the Kester book. Or (another Kester example), it may result in the production, at an Arizona rural road crossing, of a kind of shrine where migrant mexican farm workers can place small amulets (milagros) in one of its niches, as in Cristen Crujido's Proyecto Milagro.

A comparison table

The following table draws on the definitions in the Kester book, though not exclusively. Contents will be updated and refined to provide a snapshot characterisation of object-based vs. dialogical art. Whether this opposite view is too simplistic and should be replaced will probably become clearer as I progress.

type of art:


community / dialogical

general work process:

the object is produced and consumed separately (banking model: artist deposits art work, recipient withdraws it for aesthetic experience—[2] referring to Paulo Freire)

performative, emergent, contextual, situational, communication with audience constitutive of work


usually one artist forms material into object; often experiental, resonant on emergent work; sometimes contextual / erratic, sometimes executing a plan or scheme, sometimes a scheme with rules for changing rules

a scheme for the event(s), with a defined place for the lay actors or audience; often a three-step process:

  1. planning + preparation of event(s)
  2. the event / performance / dialogue, etc.;
  3. the post-production: generation of documentation, tapes, press releases, exhibition material etc.

This in a recursive fashion, where the process is itself one step in a larger process of artists' course of action

intended effect on viewer / witness:

epiphany, shock, shatter complacency, step beyond alienation, challenge faith in rational discourse

basically, well-meaning rational discourse; cumulative process of exchange and dialogue; 'break free from preexisting roles and obligations' [2]

audience expertise required:

prior aesthetic education, background knowledge of culture and art history will be beneficial to achieve 'adequate reception'; may be vital to appreciate the object

assumption that no prior knowledge of art history is required, but one can distinguish

  1. first level of direct and immediate insights, communication effects, and any knock-on effects;
  2. second level concerning the sophisitication of method and the role of a piece in the history of performance / socially engaged art that will only be appreciated by the art crowd

intended effect on world:

providing refugium, antidote, point of reference outside system, place to recharge energies (mainly directed towards art-loving cultivated individual)

  • personal level: contribution to social or political awareness and self-reflexion (all individuals involved: a cluster of possible effects and distributed ramifications);
  • political level: consulting to effect social change, brokering consensus: 'communicate outside rhetorical demands of official status'[2], reform-oriented

Community art and the market

To what extent can community and communication art escape being a product in the art market? It is clear that the critical or peer recoginition of the artist (and his or her practice) creates art as a shared (i.e. culturally valorised and potentially marketable) phenomenon in the first place. Some few will then retain a presence over an extended period and be able to translate it into some sort of career and consequently, some income. It is also clear that the huge reserve army of unknown artists and art students aspiring to such recognition, aspiring to enter the circuit of galleries, shows, reviews etc., already works in dry run mode according to the same set of forces, where a recursive assessment of activities in the overall field of art informs a constant repositioning of the individual stance. Unconsciously or not, it may follow a lower-risk and lower-reward strategy of emulation and alignment with fashionable trends or a high-risk strategy of opting for currently neglected forms of working, topoi, etc. Bourdieu has described these forces very well in his work Les règles de l'art.

Whether individuals and groups have pursued community and conversational art strategies in view of the forces in this field, or regardless of reflections on likely success in the market cannot easily be assessed. What I find interesting is that this discussion is largely absent in the discourse on community art (apart from a quick rejection of the default mode of the artist creating objects for exhibition and/or sale, which is shunned). Some of the artists working with communities and using dialogical approches are well recognised, so (public) art market forces will be at work in addition to what one would assume to be artists' primary sets of interests in shaping their work. Perhaps the ubiquitous mode of production in any market-based society invites a more or less tacit valorisation of the outcome as produce for the market. The less such produce looks like something that could hang from a wall, the easier it is to neglect or gloss over its commodity character.


As participants (peers, friends, members of the public or of non-art communities) enter the scope of the 'community art commodity', there is the issue of the de-facto exploitation of their involvement, and behind it, an issue of a potential betrayal of first-hand motives and interests that motivated and sustained such involvement. To the extent that participants are aware of the (potential) cultural capital of the initiating artist, they may aspire to share some of the limelight and media interest and rightly resent not being given due credit. In fact, most of these events, however important the contribution of non-artists, are registered under one or just a few names—the names of the artists who initiated the event. This may not necessarily be intended by the artist - it simply follows the common media habit of pinning a recognisable name to a simplified cultural marker to facilitate the recycling of the same names and markers (objects, methods, tics, materials, colours, preferred spaces etc). However, this simplification, which may be deplored on the surface, works in favour of the artist's market value. The higher level of fuss of community type projects will often attract more interest and media coverage than solitary efforts. As it picks up some recognisable social topics, it will also be easier for the media to relate to it and attempt to tell 'what it's all about'—it appears not to require the understanding of some arcane reflex on the avant-garde art context.

Community and dialogue

One primitive instantiating aspects of 'community' is dialogue or conversation, although their relation to 'community' is not an easy one. A dialogue becomes something different as soon as more than two people engage in it—if only because every interlocutor now has to differentiate between the role of 'the adressed' and that of 'the witness'. Needless to say, these roles are in constant flux. Since conversational engagement with communities (whether pre-exisitng or instantiated as a part of the art work) is seen as crucial to community and communication art, it will be worth homing in on the dialogical relationship and the way it is constructed as a conduit for 'negotiating meaning' or creating 'intersubjectivity'.

Several authors have developed an argument and a lineage for conversational and dialogical art. Alsleben/Eske trace it back to the emergence of the salons as social and cultural nuclei that competed with the courts (if you can read German, compare the Netzkunstwörterbuch, a Wiki where everyone can edit and add entries.) Eduardo Kac's text "Negotiating meaning: the dialogic imagination in electronic art" traces dialogical art back to Bahktin's and Buber's emphasis that 'meaning only emerges in dialogic relations with the other'. Meaning lies in intersubjectivity (it seems both terms deserve some critical scrutiny). Kac approvingly quotes Flusser who claims that 'what is concrete in the world we live in, are relations, and that what we call "subjects" and "objects", are abstract extrapolations from these concrete relations'.

The damn individual

This argument serves to disempower and reduce the complexity of individuals, who may well in themselves be understood as a complex and uneasy bundle of interconnected forces or representations (e.g. following Lacan's theory). Apart from a node status granted to 'relation' in the terminological architecture of a theory, is difficult to conceive of relations as more 'concrete' than the physical or embodied individuals or objects which serve as their anchors. In Kac's (and Flusser's) relational rhetoric, these individuals are, with a hint of a well calculated anti-humanist snub, reduced to mere 'extrapolations' of relations, to 'knots within relational fields'. The position of the supreme observer choses to invest the field (the ecosystem, the society) with a primacy and gleefully negates any degree of individual (monadic) self-determination or dissent, however fragile. It is important however to realise that this is merely a choice in theory construction. In contrast to physical (bricks-and-mortar) architecture, language can use mortar as bricks and bricks as mortar.

Kac traces a curious line from emancipatory projects that aimed to counteract the dominance of mono-directional media (Brecht's Radio theory) to a position where individual participants are seen as potentially equal players in creating 'intersubjectivity' or 'negotiating meaning'. He does not seem to realize that he loses the concept of society and its power differentials on the way. There is an ontologizing of the relation (e.g., that of 'I' and 'thou' with recourse to Buber) that instead suggests that society creates itself, bottom-up. This inductive approach serves to play down the interests and backgrounds responsible for the subtle and not so subtle power differentials existing at the outset of any dialogue or conversational art practice (e.g., the difference between initiating well-prepared 'artist' and ill-prepared 'lay participant'). The implicitly communicated idea that there shall be an exchange between equals, with no a priori rules to observe (apart from a general framework of courtesy—'no ad-hominems'—or netiquette assumed to be accepted as consensus without any debate) constructs the participant in an unreal realm that does not connect to his or her real-life experience of external interests, confessed and hidden self-interests, unease, pretense, role-play, aggression, bad conscience, envies, vanities, etc. The new shining realm of dialogue and conversation, the promise of 'negotiating meaning' and platonic intercourse seems to sever or at least severely dislocate links to the participant's empirical groundings while employing, at the same time, a laissez-faire rhetoric maintaining that it just serves the whims and curiosity of any participant, with no aim and no fixed end in mind, and that every contibution is welcome (to be continued).

Last update: 19 October 2006 | Impressum—Imprint