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Stir World | 'Assembly Required' at Pulitzer Arts Foundation invites public participation

Participatory art gained its consciousness and negotiations of public space through experimentation and audience involvement, starting in the 20th  century. Participatory art, also known through the movement Relational Aesthetics looked to create new consciousnesses that moved away from hierarchical space in the form of institutions, and instead acknowledged the incompleteness of meaning making without audience intervention or interaction. Action becomes an important word to consider, where art became a part of socially driven movements, and took to the streets. With the potential of art to be realised as a set of social relations occurring in public, there were new sets of understandings to be found between the gallery or museum and the previously composite work of art.

Assembly Required is an ongoing archival exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation that revisits nine artists and collectives whose works require a degree of active participation by the audience. The nine artists and collectives that shape the exhibition were internationally renowned artists such as Yoko Ono, Helio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Rasheed Araeen, Lygia Clark and others, who were part of socio-political movements in their own specific national contexts. The exhibition becomes a way for audiences to participate and co-create the works of art, while delving into the specificities of political movements that surrounded them.

STIR spoke to Stephanie Weissberg, curator at Pulitzer Art Foundation, about the exhibition. She explains, “The artworks in this exhibition invite people to explore relationships and modes of being that are outside of our typical expectations in relation to art, as well as to each other. [...] The works were created between 1959 and the present moment in seven different countries under distinct social and political contexts. They each share a belief in collaboration and public assembly as tools for reshaping society and resisting restrictive norms. In a moment in which we face profound isolation and divisiveness, the exhibition is intended to highlight the role artists have played in introducing platforms of agency and dialogue.”

The immersive exhibition features two artworks and their recreations by conceptual artist Yoko Ono, where they challenge the distinction between artist and viewer, speaking to modes of conceptual production that take from a participatory, instruction-based lens. A typescript for the book Grapefruit is produced where members of the viewing public are meant to engage with the instructional component of the script, while the intention remains of contemplating aesthetic relations. Another work by Ono titled Painting to be Stepped On, is a highly literal work that plays with intertextual relations in order for the functionality of the canvas to be experienced or observed. It is notable to mention that alongside each artist appear instructional matter in the exhibition catalogue, that seeks to engage the general public through suggested forms of interaction.

Lygia Pape’s work speaks to a political set of propositions in the face of military dictatorship in Brazil during the 1960s right before public assembly was banned. While the demonstration of the most potent work, Divisor from those created is not recreated in the space, but is referred to through video documentation. A 100-by-100-foot sheet was created by Pape to include dozens of holes cut into the surface, and then children were invited to participate by wearing the sheet together through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, speaking to ideas around public assembly and collective action in the face of political upheaval. Weissberg explains to STIR about the particular work, “What can be achieved through coordination is to give the participants a sense of hope, optimism and agency in the face of a very restrictive sociopolitical context.”

Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen’s work Zero to Infinity presents a mobile structure made out of wooden blocks or cubes that are to be reassembled and disassembled by the public. The catalogue mentions that the work was made at a time when public sculpture was not accessible in British society. As a part of this exhibition, 36 cubes are on display and viewers are encouraged to ‘stack, tilt and balance’ them in order to make new formations.

What becomes a point of contention through the exhibition is the lack of contextual matter to support the political nature of the works of art, devoid of their political spaces and contexts that have also been part of creating the original work. Participatory art within the museum or exhibition context becomes a set of instructions that are deployed by the organisers, while disengaging from the potentiality that these works refer to, and as stated by the exhibitory claim. Are they successful in their attempt to stage and energise relations?

Speaking to the political nature of the works on display, Weissberg says, “One of the reasons that these artworks were selected, was because each of them remain quite open rather than remaining as activist gestures. They are very much timeless and people can bring what they are experiencing in the present moment, whether or not they know the political context of the original presentation and creation. There are works that directly position themselves against the spaces of institutions, and question the commercialisation of art. It was a very important aspect of the exhibition that the art be fully available to the public in terms of its original intention.”

In the contemporary political moment where one encounters the distance and sheer absurdity of televised war, and where the art museum context is that of institutional space that has its own set of restrictive qualities in terms of assembly, action, movement, being, one wonders what is the potential of art to recover moments of collaboration, communication and co-creation that move towards organising political action. Action becomes a state of inaction where there are neoliberal relations at play, that speak to larger invisibilised relations within the public that are preventative to the sense of collectivity or collectivisation. Atomisation of individuals is the principle where structures of organisation are largely understood through flow of capital and individualised struggle.