[artinfo] Claire Bishop's Game: Subversive Compliance

David Garcia d.garcia at new-tactical-research.co.uk
Tue Oct 13 15:14:14 CEST 2015

Claire Bishop's Game: Subversive Compliance through Strategic Exclusion.

As that most straightforward of publishing 
platforms, the mailing list, also turns out to be 
one of the most resilient of the collaborative 
media forms to have emerged from the internet 
revolution, it makes sense for nettimers to get 
acquainted with the writings of the critic Claire 
Bishop, particularly those of us interested in 
the fate of the arts in the age of networks.

For anyone who has missed out on Bishop's 
writings, she has in recent years, established a 
reputation as one of the most influential 
advocates of what has been called - the social 
turn in art- a movement that began in the 1990s 
that effectively shifted art's centre of gravity 
towards the social and the political. Taking 
these practices from the margins of what used to 
be called -community arts- to become a prominent 
genre of the international mainstream.

For Bishop it is above all the participatory 
aesthetic (and the accompanying issues around 
politics of spectatorship) that represent the key 
dynamic (and problematic) of the "social turn" in 
art. The revival (for that's what it is) of a 
participatory emphasis in art, emerged, in a 
dialectical relationship, to the mass 
popularisation of the internet in the 1990s.

Given this historical proximity it is quite 
strange that Bishop has managed to write her 
entire magnum opus, Artificial Hells, without 
once mentioning the internet. This is a 
significant though dubious achievement and 
exploring this fact may take us a little closer 
to understanding the failure of the mainsteam art 
world to come to terms with the post war 
cybernetic paradigm and why the media arts have 
been unable to become more of a force to be 
reckoned with in this territory. 

I want to argue that a certain historical amnesia 
has contributed to Bishop's professional success. 
She has ability to combine both highly evolved 
scholarship and insight with moments of strategic 
omission and that enable her to appear radical 
without ever fundamentally challenging the art 
world's status quo. She is as interesting for 
what she leaves out as what she includes.

The Plus Side

Despite my strong reservations about some aspects 
of Bishop's work, it is important to begin by 
acknowledging her considerable achievements. 
Bishop's critical reflections over a number of 
years culminated in 2012 with her major work, 
"Artificial Hells", the title is taken from 
-Breton's post mortum of the DaDa Spring in which 
he argues for the exquisite potential of social 
disruption in the public sphere.

The book is laid out as a set of interconnected 
explorations of key historical threads and 
moments that led to the re-emergence of the 
participatory turn in art. Her breadth of 
scholarship reveal this impulse to be a recurring 
strand of the 20th century utopian avant garde. 
Importantly her work is enlivened by an 
intellectual confidence enabling her to make bold 
assertions based on substantive arguments that go 
beyond the descriptive. In otherwords there is 
plenty to agree or disagee with. In art criticism 
that is a rare and valuable attribute.

One of her most important contributions has been 
to foreground the theater as a principal 
historical progenitor of the participatory 
aesthetic. This is important as most of the 
available histories of this kind of work have 
over emphasized the visual arts at theaters 
expense; even when discussing the performative.

But her most urgent polemical mission has been to 
mount a stiff defense of the aesthetic and the 
role of the spectator. Bishop throws down the 
gauntlet to those who argue that the aesthetic 
judgement (and by inference the function of the 
critic) are an irrelevance to work which seeks to 
dispense with the role of spectator.

The defense is necessitated by the widely held 
assumption that, in this field,  aesthetic 
judgments are by definition reactionary, and, 
that it is only possible to judge this kind of 
work from the standpoint of the active 
participant. In this context aesthetic judgments 
are seen as outmoded forms of connoisseurship or 
put more simply; elitist.  The principal weapon 
in Bishop's armory in attacking this position is 
of course Ranciére. Particularly his alternative 
to the work of art as autonomous. Instead 
emphasizing our (the spectator's) autonomy. The 
autonomy which we as spectators experience in 
relation to art. Thus at a stroke he undermines 
the simplistic dichotomy of passive spectator vs 
active participant. For Ranciere the key lies in 
the undecidability of the aesthetic experience 
which -implies a questioning of how the world is 
organised, and therefore the possibility of 
changing or redistributing that same world-.

Genuine participation, as Ranciere declared in 
the Uses of Democracy, requires the invention of 
the unpredictable subject who momentarily 
occupies the street, the factory, the museum, 
rather than fixed space of allocated 
participationŠThis approach depends on 
accommodating the role of the spectator and 
rejecting the notion that, by definition, 
spectators lack agency. They have interpretive 
agency and that matters. - Nettimers take note: I 
lurk therefore I am - lurkers of the world unite.

  So what's the Problem.

For all its value Bishop's work is too often 
tempted by the sin of -subversive compliance- 
meaning the kind of political art (and criticism) 
that capitalises on looking edgy by continually 
threatening to -bite the hand that feeds it - but 
without ever actually intending to draw-blood. 
And Bishop's preferred method for enacting 
subversive compliance is the strategic exclusion.

About a year after the publication of Artificial 
Hells 2013 she wrote a widely circulated essay in 
Art Forum in which she develops her proposition - 
(Quote) that the content of contemporary art has 
been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval 
in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the 
digital revolution". Bishop proceeds to note - 
that there is, of course, an entire sphere of 
"new media" art, but this is a specialized field 
of its own: It rarely overlaps with the 
mainstream art world (commercial galleries, the 
Turner Prize, national pavilions at Venice). 
While this split is itself undoubtedly 
symptomatic, the main- stream art world and its 
response to the digital are the focus of this 
essay. - End of Quote Art Forum

So because it doesn't sit in the -Oh so important 
mainstream art world- she will not be considering 
it beyond noting that it exists. Thus she 
identifies a key problem, then identifies those 
artists and events where the problem is being 
addressed but then declares she will ignore them 
because what is happening in the mainstream art 
world is of course far more important. (Strategic 
Exclusion) Sadly this approach implicates Bishop 
as part of, the problem she is describing. To 
paraphrase Walter Benjamin -we should not look 
beyond the critic's declared sympathies, but at 
the position that the work occupies in the 
production relations of its time.-

Returning to the more important case of 
Artificial Hells, too often Bishop's defense of 
the aesthetic is elided with a defense of the art 
world as the primary territory where the 
aesthetic is happens (through being endorced or 
legitimised). At one point Bishop asserts (Qute) 
that -it is crucial to discuss, analyse and 
compare this work critically as art, (for 
emphasis she puts -as art- in italics) -since 
-she asserts- this is the institutional field in 
which it is endorsed and disseminated-(end quote)

I would argue that the most inventive of 
contemporary artist/activists (perhaps beginning 
with the AIDS activists of ACTUP) utilise 
contemporary art's language of tactical 
undecidability to be both a trigger and an 
invitation to discourse whilst dispensing with 
the legitimizing paraphernalia of the mainstream 
art world with its hierarchical equivalents of 
Popes, cardinals, saints and sinners. 
Contemporary mediatised activist/art at its best 
does not tell us what to think, in the manner of 
traditional propaganda: instead it is an 
invitation to discourse. It does not require, (in 
Bishop's words) the institutional field as a 
means of endorsement and dissemination.

Perhaps this is why early in the introduction of 
Artificial Hells, Bishop cleverly put in place a 
framework of strategic exclusion that distorts 
the radical potentiality of the -social turn- Her 
momentous feat of omitting the internet from the 
book, does not appear ridiculous because from the 
outset , she declares that she will not be 
addressing; "transdisciplinary, research-based, 
activist or interventionist art". Why on earth 
Not?! Because according to Bishop "these projects 
do not primarily involve people as the medium or 
material of the work". She goes on to claim that 
they are also excluded "because they have their 
own set of discursive problems that I would like 
to address in the future". Four years after the 
book's publication and I am still waiting for her 
to identify and address these "discursive 

I would argue that it is precisely the areas she 
has excluded the -transdisciplinary, 
research-based, activist or interventionist art-Š 
that offer the most radical and far reaching 
contribution to the social turn in culture. 
Indeed it is precisely this constellation that 
suggest a partial definition of tactical media, 
and as a whole the saga suggests why a new term 
was required that retained an aesthetic dimension 
whilst dispensing with much of the onerous 
historical baggage. 


d a v i d  g a r c i a
Prof. Digital Arts & Media Activism
Bournemouth University
d.garcia at new-tactical-research.co.uk

More information about the Artinfo mailing list