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Re:Group: Beyond Models of Consensus proposes that with participation now a dominant paradigm, structuring social interaction, art, activism, the architecture of the city, the internet, and the economy, we are all integrated into participatory structures whether we want to be or not. The exhibition showcases work that subverts existing systems or envisions new alternatives to the ways in which individuals can take part, or choose not to take part, in social and cultural life.
For the past year Eyebeam and Not An Alternative have organized the NY node of Upgrade!, with the theme Open Source in Activist and Creative Practice. The decision to produce this show was born from that collaboration, however the curatorial concept was a source of constant debate. A unified position was never achieved, but collaboration does not necessarily result in synthesis. The intention with the following two curatorial statements is to reflect subtle but important differences in our curatorial perspectives on the subjects of collaboration and participation. As we reflect back on the process of curating this show we see that our experience was far richer because of the (albeit sometimes painful) philosophical, aesthetic, and political debates among us. While harmonious unanimity was never achieved, in our view this must not be seen as an inevitable goal. We appreciate that in this show about collaboration, our curatorial collaboration has honored distinct positions, rather than subsuming difference in pursuit of consensus.
Now that technology has “reunited” us; now that we have connected, opened, collaborated, participated; now that we shared our news for free, our code for free, our media for free, our attention for free; now we attempt to stop, Re:Group and ask what is actually going on?
Digital networks have excited both artists, political actors and business entrepreneurs, all rushing to exploit this new set of tools and further their respective agendas. Mobile technology and sensing devices expand the network and its participatory frameworks into every facet of our lives. This network effect introduces a multiplicity of contexts and repercussions to every single action we make as it is recorded and indexed by more and more networks.
Participation is propagated as a new progressive value for the “networked society” but the participatory mechanisms themselves have certainly not been made more transparent. On the contrary, more interfaces promise to “not make us need to think” as a veneer for user-friendliness, even further concealing their actual control mechanisms. We too often relinquish power in the name of sociability, efficiency and fun. The same submissive logic and technocratic appeal then spills over from the screen to the street, the city, and ultimately the state.
Works featured in Re:Group either incorporate or address participatory models in an attempt to expose their inner conflicts. Who profits the most out of gift economies? How long is the attention span of global solidarity? What are the economics of social capital? Will the tactics of over-identification win the war or just the battle? Does free software spell free speech or free beer or maybe just free labor? Can peer to peer technologies oppose centralized power structures or do they actually ensure the failure of unions to provide sustained resistance? And finally can we go beyond these binaries (the ‘or’s) and confront the multiplicity (the ‘and/or’s) that is network culture?
From within this network of contradictions we have to emerge time and time again with new gain/loss analysis and to constantly reposition ourselves within each participatory context. So we can participate in unauthorized participation, sustain power through free association, collaborate beyond models of consensus… and later also tweet about it.
These days everyone – individuals, corporations, governments and DIY punks – idealizes participation. Many believe that when horizontal structures of participation replace top-down mechanisms of control, hierarchy and authoritarianism, this will eliminate apathy and disenfranchisement. While we acknowledge that distributed systems are proven and powerful tools for dismantling certain monolithic structures, we question an unalloyed faith in participation. As co-curators of the show we fought the temptation to simply celebrate the subversive potential of networked collaborations. Instead, we sought to critically analyze the contours of this emergent ideology, and to re-evaluate refusal, non-engagement, antagonism, and disagreement as fundamental to a participatory framework.
We are all the time besieged to Participate! Choose! Vote! Share! Join! And Like! And yet, we are all, already, integrated into structures of participation (whether we “like” it or not). We worry that a veneer of engagement only obscures deep flaws in the participation paradigm. Too often, it seems, progressives believe that power operates exclusively from above, that command and control emanate from some centralized, closed authority. It is no wonder that many latch on to notions of openness, transparency, and participation as radical ends in themselves; however we must not fetishize process over product.
Participatory frameworks are not in and of themselves politically significant, nor is power limited to distant and impersonal structures. Power is diffuse and distributed, operating through us and on us; participation therefore can turn into a vector for dominant ideologies as easily as it can liberate.
If participatory frameworks are to have any meaningful political consequence or activist import, they must intervene on some object, to operate in service of an end. Conflict is a necessary result of such collaboration, and a key driving force within it. Current conversations around participation idealize harmony and unison, but we ask whether synthesizing perspectives and valorizing consensus might actually subsume dissenting viewpoints, through the tyranny of compromise and the rule of the lowest common denominator. From this view, we fear a disavowal of power rather than an honest discussion about it.
And so we pass on politesse, and draw a line in the sand. We aren’t interested in raising questions, exploring models of participation or experiments in collaboration. We take a position: that participationism plagues us. More than dismantling or distributing power, we’ve invisibilized and extended it. An intervention is in order, and we offer practices and programming that contribute to this conversation: foregrounding the contours and boundaries inherent in participation, the contradictions and conflicts in a fruitful collaboration.