Creators of such works tend to imagine a potentially infinite population of participants. To my knowledge, none overtly claims a desire to transcend social divisions, but their talk of social liberation via increasing access to resources and circumventing limitations imposed by commercial forces implies that their liberating goal would only be enhanced by its unceasing spread. One established example, OPUS (Open Platform for Unlimited Signification), at since 2001, hints at this self-conception in its very title. The Delhi-based group Raqs Media Collective created this work in order to foster “unlimited” creative collaborations. The site also tracks and diagrams each collaborative tangent and its genealogy from the various “source” works that are freely shared and modified by participants.

But just how “open” and “unlimited” are worlds such as these? If nothing is done to publicize the work or lure those beyond the populations already in the grapevine to hear about it or those accessing it through voluntary searches, then works in the vein of OPUS just reinforce the given social organization. The trans-disciplinary field of network theory—which studies the structural and behavioral patterns in everything from social networks to the Internet web to biological phenomena that have a networked character—supports my suspicion. There is little argument among network theorists that even networked structures such as the web, which make infinite expansion and universal connectivity a technological possibility, reveal in practice a biased character. It is as if the “open” rhetoric accompanying such experiments in collectivist art falls prey to a myth of infinite connectivity—akin to the “six degrees of separation” proposition that everyone can be linked to everyone else in the world in just a few steps. While unlimited connectivity is a theoretical possibility, suggested by the evolving technology of the Internet, it is not a sociological likelihood. In cases such as OPUS, the likely linkages will be determined in large part by the “clustering” dynamics of social networks.16

Michael Rakowitz, Joe Heywood’s <em>paraSITE</em> Shelter, 2000.

Michael Rakowitz, Joe Heywood’s paraSITE Shelter, 2000. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. Battery Park City, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

5. The non-voluntary aspect or phase of the work must not be so imposing that it in turn becomes anti-democratic, undermining the civility required for democracy.

This means that the artwork should be kept brief and humane, as with Piper’s work of only minutes. Or, if the work has an extended time frame, as with Rakowitz’s collaborations, its non-voluntary phase—in his case, the initial approach to the homeless men or the duration of one host’s HVAC usage—should remain brief and humane. The guerrilla tactics of the anonymous international activist organization Biotic Baking Brigade is (literally) a striking counter-example. Their so-called agents have thrown pies in the faces of their political enemies. At media events, Bill Gates and Mayor Willie Brown, among others, have been “pied.” This terroristic approach to interactive performance art not only serves to entrench social niches, it is also personally violating. The dismissal of the BBB’s social message is not only likely but, in my opinion, justified.

In the end, the difference between successfully luring audiences across a cultural boundary and further compounding segmentation comes down to effective targeting and persuasion—precisely the areas in which marketing has excelled. The fact is, marketers are far better funded and technologically advantaged than most artists, and will undoubtedly maintain their dominant reach in the persuasion business. But I picture artists in the role of Rakowitz’s homeless shelters: imaginative and unexpected, siphoning power from the marketing host while building common ground in spite of it.

Alison Pearlman ( is the author of Unpackaging Art of the 1980s (University of Chicago, 2003) and essays on art and consumer culture that have appeared in art, cultural-studies, and literary journals, including Afterimage, Popular Culture Review, and Southwest Review. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches modern and contemporary art and design history at Cal Poly Pomona.


  1. According to network theorists, social networks left to their own devices actually tend to reinforce niches. They do not automatically expand endlessly in an unbiased way. Network theorists express this as the tendency of social networks to cluster. Duncan Watts, Steven Strogatz, and Albert-László Barabási, for example, have studied these patterns as part of an effort to build upon sociologist Mark Grenovetter’s landmark 1970s study of mob behavior, which tried to explain that the seemingly unpredictable outbreaks of riots are organized by discernible “tipping points,” or decision thresholds that are governed by leader-follower dynamics. Watts and Strogatz have noted that decisions—which could include whether or not to participate in an art project—made by members of clustered groups depend in part on the decisions of others around them, especially a specific set of likeminded “neighbors” to whom they pay special attention. At every phase of the spread of an idea or behavior, this in-niche-gravitation tendency exists. For discussion of this theory, see Steven Strogatz, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (New York: Hyperion, 2003), especially the chapter “The Human Side of Sync.”
Further Reading