A set of critical criteria is needed for producing audience-participatory projects. I propose the following rubric, which I have devised to apply to any attempt on the part of interactive artists to resist balkanization.

1. Choose audiences that are likely to be surprised by the points of view or insights represented in or by the work.

Situate the work in physical or media sites where desired audiences are likely to congregate but will not expect to encounter opposition.

Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Card) #1 offers one model of savvy contextualization. As soon as one or more participants at a social gathering made a racist remark—mistakenly assuming that he or she was amongst likeminded individuals—Piper would hand the offender a small card showing a typed, paragraph-long statement making them aware that Piper is black. The card proceeds to explain with acerbic wit why Piper has resorted to handing out a card in situations such as these: “In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.” Impeccable timing and a captive audience maximized the impact of her gesture.

A very different but equally effective approach to audience selection is exemplified by Rakowitz’s paraSITE. This complex work involves targeting several audiences to play differing roles in the work. The practical goal of paraSITE is to craft easily made and readily transportable shelters for distribution to homeless people. Although the shelters take a variety of shapes, sizes, and interior architectures, all are built with tubular extensions for easy attachment to the air vents found on the exteriors of buildings. This crucial piece of the design, which explains the work’s title, allows the impromptu shelters to be heated by an otherwise unused resource, the output of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

To design these shelters, Rakowitz sought the input of some of the homeless people who would be using them. At a municipal center over several months in 1998, he met with several homeless men, including Bill Stone, George Livingston, and Freddie Flynn, whom he approached after noticing them on his way to his graduate studies at MIT. Rakowitz’s various modifications over time to the shelter designs reflect their feedback and that of other collaborators. According to Rakowitz, the men saw these shelters as a form of protest—a way to make themselves and their plight more visible.14

The work guarantees surprise among each of its several audiences, and, at every turn, uses it pointedly as a catalyst for cross-niche awareness or exchange. The homeless men must have been initially wary of Rakowitz’s approach, though the shock surely abated as they entered into collaboration. The “hosts” are surprised to find their passive but crucial role in sustaining the homeless men via their unwitting donation of HVAC waste. Finally, passersby are taken aback by the shelters’ theatrical disruption of the routine streetscape, and may be compelled to consider their own privilege.

2. Avoid requiring specialized knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or tastes to apprehend the work if doing so prevents audiences’ exposure to information or viewpoints outside their social niche.

Piper’s art avoids this impetus toward segregation by making reference only to the racist remark and doing so with pinpoint timing. Her audience is thus guaranteed to perceive Piper’s reference to the offensive speech as a disruption to their false sense of community. Taking a different tack, Rakowitz’s work requires no specialized frame of reference for anyone familiar with the presence of homeless populations on urban streets, even if interpretations of the work may vary.

Footnotes

  1. Rakowitz’s website, www.michaelrakowitz.com, made this claim when I accessed it in the summer of 2007. Since then, the website has become password protected and therefore inaccessible to the public. Another source of Rakowitz’s claim that the shelters are a form of dissent, as well as empowerment, is Kopinjol Baishyia, “Artist Michael Rakowitz ‘voices’ social issues at Gallery 400,” in the Frontline section of the Chicago Flame (19 November 2007), 2.http://media.www.chicagoflameinferno.com/media/storage/paper535/news/2007/11/19/Frontline/Artist.Michael.Rakowitz.voice.Social.Issues. At.Gallery.400-3110750.shtml.