Towards an Aesthetics of Common/s: Beyond Participation and its Post

Text: Magda Tyżlik-Carver

The emphasis on participation as the core of many projects and artworks requires material examination that includes the social but is not limited to it. In other words the questions of participation should include considerations of what is produced in the process beyond the community and the social, that is what material and discursive results are created by participatory practices and artworks. Such an attitude necessarily has to include two phenomena that are regularly underplayed in considerations of participatory practices which are essential for aesthetic experience to occur. I argue that there is a need to recognise other than human participants in the production of participatory works, as well as other and new forms of collective subjectivities that cannot be simply described as community.  The inclusion of these two phenomena has to take into account their location and connection to systems and processes beyond the work itself as they are part of wider terrain that is common to everyday experiences and their workings within complex and networked environments.

Jacques Rancière (2011)  famously takes issue with the proposition that in order to emancipate the spectator he/she has to be relieved from the role of the spectator through the active engagement in the artwork. According to Rancière, the emancipation of the spectator can take place through dis-identification which he considers to be an initial aesthetic effect (2011, 74). Dis-identification is a result of exercising politics through aesthetics where political subjectivation is achieved through unsettling existing subject positions. He says:

Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination it presupposes disrupts the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations. What it produces is not rhetorical persuasion about what must be done. Nor is it framing of a collective body. It is a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world they live in and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ to adapt to it. It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation. However this political effect occurs under the condition of an original disjunction, an original effect, which is the suspension of any direct relationship between cause and effect. (2011, 72–73)

At the basis of an aesthetic experience that is shared is an individual and deeply personal realisation of this disjunction. It is the moment in which the identified subject is unable to recognise itself in familiar ways and at the same time is capable of experiencing the distance between the self and the subject it occupies outside the aesthetic moment. Dis-identification takes place as a result of entering relations which are able to create this moment of disconnection which, Rancière claims, requires ‘solitude of the artwork’ (2011, 55) for its materialisation in order to then go and look out for what is common. It is the sensation of ‘being together apart’ (2011, 51) which transforms the way in which the world is experienced anew according to Rancière. Emancipation of the spectator is not linked here to the issue of replacing spectatorship with participatory action or some such activity, but is a result of aesthetic experience. This can be viewed as a form of exercising politics through aesthetics where the focus on the act of viewing as in opposition to doing is undermined. It is also useful to follow these autonomous elements which together define aesthetic experience.

In Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (Fig. 1), first performed in 1964, the audience is invited to cut the artist’s clothes. It is important to highlight this work not only because of its particular effort to engage with the audience directly, but its focus on the object of artistic production as means to and a platform for what can be considered direct action offered to the spectator.  The course of this action is aimed at the participant’s experience of the self via relations with others: things and people, and as such it relates to Rancière’s understanding of aesthetic experience which starts with generating a certain disjuncture as this work unsettles familiarity of certain forms and places them at a distance from their usual environments.

Cut Piece does not aim at establishing or restoring community in the way that participatory art as social art has come to be understood so often now. On the contrary, it is about destruction and the audience is invited to perform it by cutting the artist’s clothing piece by piece, one person after another. As Kristine Stiles claims, ‘Cut Piece entailed a disrobing, a denouement of the reciprocity between exhibitions and scopic desires, between victim and assailant, between sadist and masochist: as a heterosexual herself, Ono unveiled the gendered relationship of male and female subjects as objects for each other’ (1998, 278).  Here, relationality is enacted as it takes place through action focused on interpersonal and intimate act in public between individual subjects. At the same time audience is united through the act of violence, and through the shared experience of power position versus that of the artist.

Arguably, the act of cutting to pieces restores the direct relation between the artist and audience members. The act of objectifying the self by the artist and at the same time surrendering control to the audience makes the artist and the work itself completely vulnerable. The work is open to love or to violence and anger. Here participation is dangerous and unpredictable, and as Ono said herself it could be ‘a frightening piece to perform’(1964). It is even more so because of the object given to the audience to perform it with: the scissors. A useful tool but also precarious at it where the offering of the artist has always a chance of turning into sacrifice. Thus cutting here acts in all directions and is not only dividing fabric into pieces and clothes into fragments but it also creates patterns through gestures and rearrangement of space, time and matter. Participation here is instrumental but it is not instrumentalised as a method of enacting and representing the social. In fact it can be argued that people perform here like machines and tools, executing and cutting, whereas scissors and artist clothes become affective and provoke particular emotions and actions.  In Cut Piece the social indeed is part of the project but it is not constructed as its necessary requirement.

Crucial in realisation of such project is common experience. It is an experience shared as in common with others and as such it is a core of empathy: it makes empathy possible. Therefore my suggestion is to distinguish between participation and commons as two subjective experiences where the former focuses on individual experience that either tends to follow the rules or disagree with them, and the latter only exists in common. The argument I propose here is to think of participation in art not just in reference to the widely recognised move from the focus on art objects to people and to participation as open processes, as well as the recognition of the public (and its value) as an element of this process.

Analysis of participatory art requires extending discussions beyond the social and including complex relations that go beyond the gallery and the art and social context of the participatory projects. Ideological, structural, gender and biopolitical tendencies which shape the project from outside as well as various tools, devices and systems which create and organise forms of participation also need to be taken into account as actively participating in it and as being part of common experiences.

The consequence of neglecting to consider non-human elements is that the discourse of participation in art has been blind to the incorporation of user participation in another social sphere – that of social media (Fig 2).[1]  It is a space of abundant creative production where participation takes place non-stop and where new commons are relentlessly being created and often immediately enclosed. This constant participation is a prevailing regime that governs social media where sharing and peer production is immediately followed by rent and division.[2] Caffentzis (2010) recognises these as conflicting realities where co-operative models are appropriated by capitalism into a neoliberal model and the two exist under the same concept of commons. Recognising this can be helpful in identifying that discourses of participation and participatory art today would be more accurately described as post-participatory. Post- participation assumes participation as a condition present everywhere and enacted by humans and non-humans participating together and being already part of something regardless if it is a desired outcome. Paraphrasing the words of Gene McHugh (2011) about Internet and post-Internet, participation is not a way to escape to another world, but a way in which we are already in the world we wanted to escape from.[3]  As implied, post-participation refers to and sits alongside other post-concepts such as post-internet, post-digital and post-human which point to the everyday quality of technology and its semi-autonomy from traditional human/social relations. This proliferation of the ‘post-anything’, with which Geoff Cox (2014) describes the current tendency in critical thinking to refer to processes of displacement, is representative of the increased participation of technologies in not only managing and organising, but also defining social relations.[4]

Nevertheless, in our post-world relations are increasingly complicated and the era of anthropocene has arguably superseded itself in that people already have done enough to completely change the ‘natural’ course of history not only for themselves but for the entire planet. This would call for deeper engagement and rethinking of ‘our bodies as part of nature-culture continuum.’(Braidotti 2013, 92)  I would argue that aesthetic possibility is acutely dependent on this process which Rosi Braidotti (2013, 89) defines, taking inspiration from Deleuze, as ‘posthuman as becoming machine.’ There is an aesthetic statement in Braidotti’s characterisation which she defines further:

The posthuman predicament is such as to force a displacement of the lines of demarcation between structural differences, or ontological categories, for instance between the organic and the inorganic, the born and the manufactured, flesh and metal, electronic circuits and organic nervous systems. (2013, 89)

There is a certain similarity between what is described here as displacement and the sensation of dis-identification which Rancière refers to when talking about aesthetic experience.  The contextual difference is of importance. Whereas Rancière situates this perception between what is seen, thought and felt that is as a sensory experience, for Braidotti it is ontological issue that is as if to say that it has been and that it is already a space of displacement. The displacement is at the same time nature-culture continuum thus it is its source as well as its effect: posthuman as becoming machine. It is exactly this difference which is important when trying to move towards the aesthetics of common/s. The move from how we can experience this sense of disjuncture to how this displacement is part of our becoming is at the core of the aesthetics of common/s.

The aesthetics of common/s refers to a displacement of aesthetic effect or more accurately its disconnection from the aesthetic moment as defined in Rancière where it is still in the hands of an artist to instigate the conditions for dis-identification to take place. In the condition of post-participation it is assumed that we are already engaged in some form of participation whether it is conscious decision or not and as such instituting the rules of engagement is already out of artist’s hands. If there is an ambition to move towards the aesthetics of common/s there is a need to demand not more new forms of participation but moments that displace participatory situations we are already in to open up and make space for new situations that could have been otherwise, even if for a moment. It is at this moment that it is possible to consider the aesthetics of common/s.


[1] Exemplary of such an attitude is Claire Bishop’s article in Artforum (2012) in which the critic decides to designate certain digital works to another domain of a ‘specialised field of its own’ thus implying they are of no interest to art critics unless they exist and are exhibited within the main stream art events such as Venice Biennale, Turner Prize in Britain, etc. See also responses to this article in (Harger 2012; Jackson 2012; Lichty 2013). 

[2] Indicative of this is the rise of what has been called ‘share economy’ which allows citizens to monetize on their assets through renting their flats via airbnb platform and similar. See also a conversation between Trebor Scholtz and Tiziana Terranova in (2014).

[3] See also (Debatty 2008)and the discussion on post-net aesthetics on Rhyzome, especially an article by (Connor 2013).

[4] See also other contributions to Christian U. Anderson; Cox G.; Papadopoulos G. (eds) Post-Digital Research, in A Peer Reviewed Journal About, 3 (2014).



Bishop, Claire. “Digital Divide.” Artforum International., September 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA, USA: Polity Press, 2013.

Caffentzis, George. “The Future of ‘The Commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’ or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?.” New Formations. Imperial Ecologies 69, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 23–41. doi:10.3898/NEWF.69.01.2010.

Connor, Michael. “What’s Postinternet Got to Do with Net Art?”, November 1, 2013.

Cox, Geoff. “Prehistories of the Post-Digital: Or, Some Old Problems with Post-Anything.” Post-Digital Research, A Peer Reviewed Journal About, 3, no. 1 (2014).

Debatty, Regine. “Interview with Marisa Olson – We Make Money Not Art.” We Make Money Not Art, March 28, 2008.

Harger, Honor. “Why Contemporary Art Fails to Come to Grips with Digital. A Response to Claire Bishop.” – Honor Harger, September 2, 2012.

Jackson, Robert. “Making the Digital Divide Cheap and Nasty,” August 9, 2012.

Lichty, Patrick. “A Disjointed Conversation – Claire Bishop, The Digital Divide, and the State of New Media Contemporary Art.” Furtherfield, January 15, 2013.

McHugh, Gene. Post Internet. Brescia, Italy:, 2011.

Ono, Yoko. “Cut Piece Is about Freeing Yourself from Yourself…” In Grapefruit. Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, 1964.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Reprint edition. London: Verso, 2011.

Stiles, Kristine. “Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions.” In Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, edited by Paul.

Schimmel, 227–329. Los Angeles; New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1998.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Trade Unionism, Digital Labor and the Sharing Economy.”, July 18, 2014.


Magda Tyżlik-Carver is a researcher and curator based in Cornwall. Her curatorial practice is influenced by contemporary cultures of mass participation in socio-technological networks and in particular how users, machines and software stimulate new forms of curating.

The article was originally commissioned and published on in Oktober 2014 and was reprinted in Revista-ARTA #38-39 in October 2019.