Talk with Robert Pfaller

Whether we call it Social Sculpture, Distributed Art, Instruction Art, Relational Art, Dialogical Art, Interactive Art, Networked Art, Community Art, App Art, Appropriation Art or Participatory Art in general: What these forms of artistic expression have in common, is, that they are working together with “the others”, albeit in very different ways. The Austrian philosopher Robert Pfaller has published his book Aesthetics of Interpassivity (Ästhetik der Interpassivität) in 2008, where he presented an essay entitled Against Participation. It is one of the first critical writings on this topic and he is asking what participation can mean beyond a romanticized attitude and attendant hopes and aspirations to democracy, emancipation or empowerment. In the course of my examination about Crowd Art, where I research on artistic models of participation via computer technology and the Internet, I wanted to know his current view on forms of part taking, whether they take place knowinglyor not knowingly, voluntary or involuntary.

Talk with the philosopher Robert Pfaller
from May 5th 2014 at Kleinen Café, Vienna

Manuela Naveau: When it comes to participation in the arts, I realized that media or digital art is actually very often hidden in art theory workups on this subject. As an early work of the so-called participatory art, theorists are confronting us for example with Duchamp´s letters Ready-made malheureux to his sister in 1919. Interestingly, the Phone Pictures of László Moholy-Nagy in 1922 are nearly never mentioned, even though this famous work delt with forms of instruction and abstraction processes via other persons in the purest sense. However, with the term participation something romantic still resonates since the 1960ies: because we`re doing something in common with ‘the others’, and that’s nice! However, if you look at the processes of artist that opened their work to ‘the others’ on the Internet, again forms of participation are increasingly coming into focus that are not exclusively aimed at creating a common face to face. Actually since the Futurists and the beginning of the 20th century one stumbles over unconscious forms of participation, forms of appropriation and forms of participation of many others, that you do not know (and now with the Internet) that you even can not see. But isn´t it all about participation in general? How do you see that?

Robert Pfaller: I find it always interesting to see how concepts disappear, or how the history of a concept looks like. You have to ask for example: What other term replaced the old one? I think it could be interesting in the case of ‘participation’ and ‘interaction’ to investigate , and striking even with ‘mass’ and ‘crowd’ and similar terms you have to have a look in detail.

MN [here and in the following]: Can it be said that the term ‘mass’ is much more in need of an explanation than the word ‘Crowd’? Maybe because it does not carry so much this historical boots from Le Bon, Freud, and Canetti and so on? (It is important to mention here, that in the German language we only have one word for mass or crowd, which is ‘die Masse’.)

RP [here and in the following]: Yes, but since you have to be careful. Not every spontaneous rioting by individuals is good. ‘Multitude’ for example, which is in my opinion in the book “Empire” by Negri and Hardt a very problematic concept. Difficult questions of political organization, such as: ‘How much control do large groups need’, ‘How do I handle hierarchy?’ etc., are here suppressed by an allegedly unproblematic, seemingly apolitical occupy concept – similar to ‘crowd’ or ‘community’. The term ‘multitude’ has been borrowed of Spinoza, who uses it actually quite critical, and he refers with it to the most reactionary masses. Spinoza says, that the masses appear first of all and apparently regularly as reactionary masses, as mobs; and sometimes they lynch their democratically elected representatives. Compared to this awareness of Spinoza, a strange criticism-loss of Hardt and Negri can be observed – and moreover in a quite ambitious political theory. Even though we speak today of ‘Crowds’, you should first think of maybe a lynch mob – or, for example, of questionable players such as Shit Stormers. Then you have the blackest picture in mind and know about the problems and dangers in the matter.

MN: Do you see a difference when speaking about ‘mass’ and ‘crowd’? Beside the already mentioned historical notions, I myself observed that the concept of mass could be described as an accumulation of people at a certain time and in a certain place. Crowd could rather be described as an accumulation of individuals who operate anytime and anywhere and do not necessarily want to make a thing together here and now. I am thinking for example of projects like The Sheep Market ( and The Johnny Cash Project (, both by Aaron Koblin. The artist initiated different processes of participation: 10,000 people have been drawing sheeps through Amazon Mechanical Turk and have been paid for it. On the contrary, in the Johnny Cash Project several thousand contributors are drawing a video still and so – indeed – show their interest in the Johnny Cash community. However, all this happens not necessarily at a certain time and the intentions of the people participating are also quite different.

RP: The biggest difference between mass and crowd is then, that the mass individuals treat each other as present. While in this crowd situations they are only connected together in a star shape over a center. They do not even know if they are perhaps not the only one who draws a sheep for you or a sheep among the thousands of subscribers. This is, I think, the biggest difference: the structure. A mass can live with a relatively absent leader. This leader can be dead already, but people still believe in her/him and are united. They must be connected together, they have to occupy a place, experience themselves as thousands in attendance. The horizontal relationships are present, and much more pronounced than in your Crowd examples.

MN: And what do you think about the outsourcing practices of artists that arise over the Internet? Aaron Koblin for example used a crowdsourcing platform already one year after Amazon Mechanical Turk was born. He used AMTurk to realize his artistic projects, which was a whole new way back in 2006. Of course it is basically nothing new that artists let fabricate their work by others. It is interesting, however, that new offerings emerge if you want to work with ‘the others’: People that you probably would have never met in a life before the Internet. People, that you actually cannot call ‘audience’ anymore.

RP: If you look at what’s happening, it’s probably the most soberly way, you follow the models of economic exploitation and ask for example: What happens when Prada is sewing clothes in China, or Adidas shoes? This happens not only between Europe and China, but it happens, for example, within India. There are highly paid star designers in India who have come on the idea of making Indian National fashion in the last ten years and India has experienced a new Folklorism. Previously they had aligned with the West, but now they say: “We are actually the intellectual superpower! It is us, who create the computer programs, and that is why we want to show that in our elite fashion. “And now the top Indian designers employ very poorly paid manual workers in the country, who get very little money for this embroidery, but decorate quite expensive fashion. Fashion, that is no longer only in India booming, but now also in the Arab world. Its own Indian fashion cosmos had been developed, as the anthropologist Tereza Kuldova describes in her new book.
I think these operations must be soberly compared. There is certainly such a thing as creativity of the masses; there is also a sophisticated, traditional, largely anonymous craftsmanship. But this is often conspicuous that there is an extreme disparity in value, between those who produce something and those who smuggle it in any relevant market. If you want to make good art about it, it is important that you are not mistaken about the context.
Only then you can compare carefully these processes with the utopias of solidarity and collective production. In all of these (usually hastily and enthusiastically proclaimed) terms such as ‘crowd’ or ‘participation’, old emancipatory aspirations of the 50s and 60s play a role and still lead a ghostly post-existence. Interactivity was known long before there was the dream about interactive electronic media. There was indeed the lexicon novel by Andreas Okopenko and the Hundred Thousand Billion Poems by Raymond Queneau and all these other books where you could put together the texts by yourselve…

MN: Le Livre by Mallarmé and his fascination about ‘the others’…

RP: Yes, exactly. And I think that it would be helpful to gain clarity and think about why art needs someone else in production since the beginning of the 20th century? That would have been no parameter in the art of the 19th century, as far as I can see. As the artists have created for themselves and were happy with it and even have felt great that they can draw so much. In the 20th century, however, a stimulus occurs very early (in Cubism, for example, in working with African sculptures) for finding anything that you can feed into your own art and that is due to a change in perspective. Because they (the Cubists) have not said: “The Africans are great artists. We will retire now and will show only them.” On the contrary, they said:” Somehow they make great stuff, but they do not know how great it is and why. But we know this though! “And what arises immediately is a change of perspective, the slope in the value. What the Africans have gotten for the sculptures was probably negligible compared to the Cubists who processed it. And then the same with the art of disabled people, Art Brut, and also with the art of children, and that’s all up to the recent art history. Tobias Rehberger, for example, has been in Africa and ordered some classic Bauhaus furniture at furniture carvers. These carvers had been free in composition and freely varied them. And the chair, which usually has four legs, then had five for example. But it is still recognizable as Bauhaus furniture. Now I do not know how Rehberger paid them, but the principle seems to be similar to Picasso’s reception of African masks, since you will always have this change in perspective. And this structural principle, that is now taking place in the fashion and the media, is apparently in a similar way an aesthetic principle. Namely, that we can only like what we perceived by a change in perspective. That’s different than if we could say: “This is beautiful what you’ve made, and we both know why.” Today we always need another to who we can say: “That’s great, but you don´t know why! But I know that.” Then we find it great. We can actually trace this back to two basic aesthetic experiences: First, the experience of beauty needs no illumined others. For example, the beautiful palace facade, which can be admired without thinking: “The architect has never realized how beautiful it is. But I know that. “In contrast, to recognize the menacing mountain canyon as great and beautiful, your mind has been filled already with many ideas, as Kant says. The joy of the sublime is therefore always a joy in their own wealth of ideas and this differentiates oneself from others, who may therefore perceive nothing sublime to the same object. In the experience of the sublime, desire is felt therefore always against others or against the imagined sensation of others.

MN: But wasn´t that not always the case, wasn´t it? I mean, if I think of the Bayeux Tapestry for example: There are moments that were perceived as beautiful or as not beautiful at all, but in some way it touched the artist (or craftsman) and had therefore been presented?

RP: That may be right, that even horror or something else has been processed. That does not mean, however, that is not a big difference in where the synthesis power is located. In the Bayeux Tapestry hundreds die perhaps on wounds caused by arrows and yet you say: “What a beautiful carpet!” But you trust the artist himself that he said: “What a beautiful carpet!” Or: “I must process so that it gives a beautiful carpet that scare.” However, when we gather up art by Africans or from any Indian hotel concierge working over the Internet, we commit a change of perspective from those, who mostly do not even know what we use from them. We have it at least very necessary to fancy us that they do not really know what we utilize. They are lacking this synthesis achievement that we provide, because we have already filled the mind with all the ideas. You know where to put these sheep as sheep-artist, you know how to present them and in which context. And you’ve got the connections. And you’ll also get famous as well as you have the copyright on your Ready-made, and not the one who designed the urinal or the iron.
There is a basic self-deception of the intellectuals, if they believe that this is emancipatory only because it involves others. On the contrary, they should have a look at the practices of exploitation and then they know about what they are doing themselves. But they should also consider something about her aesthetic sense and wondering what has changed so much that we get almost no kicks by anything, which is great by itself; instead we only get kicks by the fact that we use anyone else as our advanced idiot and his/her performance will be recharged by us with a change of perspective. It could be anyway that they are all super smart, who participate, and that it´s art students working as hotel concierges. But we really need to say: “Aha, there’s this artist, who has wrested these incredibly diverse sheep drawings from any anonymous Indians.”
And, of course, mechanisms of promotion policy and funding are meeting these interests. If you submit a project where the inhabitants of the less populated areas in Upper Austria (or any less favored region) are integrating into any artistic project, you get much rather funded, as if you’re saying that you paint a brilliant picture.

MN: Yes, this is exactly the experience that I made with Leonart in 2011, where the municipality of the small city Leonding in Upper Austria confirmed us as artistic directors, under the condition that we initiate projects with the participation of the local population. Since then Dagmar Höss and me called for participatory disobedience (Ungehorsam) and did quite a great Festival in the end. However, I assume we will never be asked again by the local city government for another artistic project.
But going back to the question of appropriation: With my project My Turked Ideas ( – and this applies basically to Aaron Koblin´s The Sheep Market – it was something else that interested me. I wanted to know who are the AMTurkers, how creative are they and how do they go with an inquiry as I did. There is my sincere interest ‘in others’, who are present online but actually invisible. I also told them that it is an artistic research project. That was important to me: who submits ideas for crowd art projects, even though they do not know me and it could be an artistic work or research project in the very end, that is realized?

RP: You could consider the following also for the longing of the unknowing others: I think the fascination comes rather from the strangeness, because you can get kicks from people who you probably would not meet within the art scene. Because one would think, “I find it too little and I’m sure if I had five like-minded people on board, then we would have an insane amount of ideas.”, Then you’d get the professionals, the others from the Art University Linz or the Ars Electronica Center Linz or wherever you move. But that is not the case. Consciously you get people that appear in this context as a lay or as outsiders, and the kicks that has come so exactly from there. From what they do is so very different from what ever might have thought the five colleagues.
I wonder about the changes in the functioning of art system, because yet exhibitions are almost attended by colleagues only and the art scene is its own reception room meanwhile. One can hardly make an exhibition where the visitors of the Vernissage are actually competitors. There is hardly any more something like collectors or enthusiasts, innocent people so to say, who likes to see art, but do not do it themselves. You must search them with a magnifying glass at an opening today. Some are critics, the others are curators, and the third are intellectual commentators or artists themselves, because otherwise no one comes. And that is precisely what means extreme incest. And perhaps also due to this necessity, this system constantly needs new blood infusions from the outside. If you compare this with a system of art of the 19th century, the artists themselves have taken over this role of the outside. The visitors liked to look at what amazed them and they have asked questions like: “What may have the artist only imagined thereby?” That may have taken place even still partially into the 60s or 70s of the last century. But no one asks this question today anymore, because everyone already knows exactly about it. Actually by then it was the artists who have been the Africans, only they were not at the place of exploitation. They stood over the audience and were admired. This fresh blood power came from the artists. Today, however, the art itself plays the audience and gets the blood from the outside, but on low pay.

MN: Is it also a crucial difference whether the participation of ‘the others’ takes place knowingly or unknowingly on an art project?

RP: That’s right. Another important question seems to me, in what we participate? In the production? Or the benefits of the product? Or, in Marx spoke: in the production process, or in the value creation process? For example, I can unknowingly assist in a murder if I give any substance that is needed for a poison or a bomb to somebody, while I am thinking that this person is using it for something completely different. Then I had unknowingly participated in the manufacturing process of the murder. I can unwittingly participate in the value creation process of a murder if I have shares in the company that is dealing with blood diamonds. And I do not even know about it because I’ve only invested in a fund, without having a clue how it is composed. Knowingly and unknowingly may thus play a role at both levels. For the question, however, whether the inclusion of others has something emancipatory or not, it seems to me important to make this distinction. Just as in economy: to be included in the production process means the same as in art namely to be exploited. On the other hand to be included in the value creation process could be something emancipatory and egalitarian. As Affected we would then not so much speak about ‘Participants’ but rather about ‘shareholders’ in the matter.
And then, of course, such things like phenomena of interpassivity can arise, but I would not call it participation anymore. That would be again such benefit of reception that neither the artist nor the manufacturer is sensing. If Slavoj Zizek says that he finds it great when the sitcom on television with her canned laughter laughs at hims because after it, he then is incredibly relaxed and he has the feeling that he has perfectly amused himself. Even if he does not listen and has not even laughed, then that is an effect that the producers have not necessarily seen before. And Zizek delegated its passivity to the product and then used it as not quite intended. In this way ‘the others’ gave a certain benefit to Zizek, that was actually not intended.
Knowledge can therefore also be on the recipient side, and ‘not knowing’ on the producer´s side. However, in this case it’s questionable whether this still can be called participation. A word like ‘change of use’, conversion or détournement would describe the situation better.

MN: There is already an expression in the art if producers or artists have unknowing others in the production process or use their productions for their own artistic work: one speaks of Appropriation Art.

RP: Yes, exactly. True, this is an interesting context in question. Because they identify in some way completely that ‘the other’ was already an artist: i am thinking of Elaine Sturtevant in terms of Andy Warhol and Marina Abramovic in terms of Valie Export.

MN: Within the last years I observed some projects, which address forms of appropriation. In particular and as an example, I am thinking of the work of Paolo Cirio ( He is criticising precisely this value chains and is questioning: who is gaining which benefits of what? Issues such as appropriation or outsourcing in the arts (done with computertechnology and the Internet) have a renewed relevance, as well as well as actionism in net art might have got a new relevance?

RP: Yes, I think that you are sitting in a very good viewing position. You just have to be aware that it is very much knowledge and ideology already there that you may not share. All of these things need a lot of self-deception to be prepared and also produce terms that serve as this kind of self-deception like ‘crowd’, ‘crowdfunding’, ‘Collective art production’, ‘disappearance of the author’ and so on. That’s all fraught with considerable hopes. If you do not want to be just another preacher of this ideology and want to continue to systematize the self-deceptions, you need to be suspicious and always have to think about the worst ways of a term, so that you can break with the understanding of the subject. That is the fundamental prerequisite for science in relation to something. Louis Althusser once wrote: “The golden rule of materialism is: Never confuse the being of the object with it´s self-confidence.” It means that there’s an object that tells already rich stories about itself, but you must study it carefully so as if it had liver cirrhosis. But be careful not to be affected by it.

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