Komar and Melamid, <em>America’s Most Wanted</em>, 1994.

Komar and Melamid, America’s Most Wanted, 1994. Oil and acrylic on canvas, dishwasher size. Photo: D. James Dee. Copyright Komar and Melamid. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Many works that are otherwise thoughtful about audiences do not crack any ideological cocoons because they do not challenge the sociologically meaningful audiences. A prime case is People’s Choice (1995) by the well-known, U .S.-based Russian duo Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. For the project, Komar & Melamid hired a market research firm to survey diverse audiences in the U .S. to find out what were the most and least desirable characteristics in a painting. (For related projects, they surveyed citizens of other countries.) The results—recreations of the “most” and “least wanted” paintings—comprised People’s Choice. According to the project website, Komar & Melamid were asking their audience to consider, “What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and is governed by opinion polls?” And, “What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people?” I agree that these are worthwhile questions. However, the problem is that the work can be perceived as critique only by audiences already socialized to find the resulting pictures mediocre clichés. The many contributors to the survey, who may have answered earnestly that their favorite color in a painting is blue and their favorite subject a landscape, are not invited to ponder the deeper questions at stake because their participation is limited to the survey. Thus the work’s payoff is at their expense, not for their benefit.

3. Construct scenarios and terms of interaction that encourage people to adopt, accept, or simply become aware of a viewpoint outside of their social niche.

The key is to disarm audiences’ tendencies to ignore or dismiss dissonant information or viewpoints. Piper did so by taking advantage of her audience’s captivity in an intimate social situation. The offenders could not easily deny the actions for which she held them accountable. Piper also appealed to the offender’s sympathy by making the victim—herself—literally present.

Rakowitz compels us by other means. The ingenuity of the shelter designs and the artist’s sense of humor, as well as visual drama, inspire his audiences to imagine alternatives to normative realities. One is pressed to consider not just instances of temporary housing for the homeless participants but alternative ways of thinking about housing, homelessness, and our interdependence in the world. In addition, the mutual edification of artist and homeless men during the collaborative process installed a basis for trust, empathy, and receptiveness among people normally outside of each other’s social circles. Furthermore, the work’s provocative design and the homeless men’s participation in it as designers and performers allow audiences to envision the homeless men in a different role: as empowered rhetoricians on their own behalf. By combining all of these aspects, Rakowitz employs the best of the two main approaches to interactive art today: the dramatic flair of Situationist-style “interventionist” works and the opportunity for lasting mutual transformations found in the sustained, “dialogical” collaborations between artists and non-artists.

The Yes Men, <em>The Management Leisure Suit</em>, 2001.

The Yes Men, The Management Leisure Suit, 2001. Performance/intervention at the conference Textiles of the Future, Tampere, Finland. Courtesy of The Yes Men.

Many otherwise democratizing works that do well at audience targeting, and are even skilled at creating socially significant confrontation, still are unable to penetrate audiences’ defenses, and therefore wind up entrenching niches. A case in point is the work of the collective the Yes Men. On a mission to counter the excessive influence and abuses of corporate power within public life, they specialize in forms of counter-propaganda that they term “identity correction.” Typically, these involve sabotage of targeted organizations and individuals via impersonation of their websites—most famously that of George W. Bush and the World Trade Organization. Yes Men members Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum have also pretended to be representatives of the organizations their websites have convincingly mimicked, attending international conferences and presenting parodic PowerPoints to unsuspecting audiences.

In one infamous case in 2001 at a conference in Tampere, Finland, Bichlbaum lectured on the textile industry as WTO representative “Hank Hardy Unruh.” After punctuating his talk with outrageous claims, including that the abolition of slavery had been pointless in light of the evolution of today’s slave-like sweatshop labor, Unruh augmented the farce by snapping off his business suit to reveal the gold-leotard glory of his “Management Leisure Suit.” Sporting an inflatable three-foot phallus tipped with a video interface system, Unruh demonstrated innovative management techniques. For example, managers could monitor and deliver electric shocks to unproductive workers from a safe and convenient distance.

Further Reading