69: Amy Spiers

Is there a place for disruption/reaction/antagonism in social practice art?



Australian artist Gabrielle de Vietri interviews people from the Wimmera region in rural Australia about the possibility of a three team football game as part of her project Three Teams (2012)

The very mention of “disruption” or “antagonism” tends to polarise socially-engaged artists. An antagonistic model of practice is often vehemently rejected as it is associated with artists like Santiago Sierra who allegedly exploit people and have questionable ethics. Against this view, I suggest that such opposition to strategies of disruption often comes from a desire to avoid troubling or unsettling people, and a mistaken belief that it is better for art to provide tangible, practical solutions, rather than a critique of what currently exists.

Let us consider the alternative. What would a socially-engaged art practice be without agitation, provocation or critique? If we are to reject the possibilities of disruption or antagonism, what should socially-engaged art produce instead? Only good times, affirmative feelings and positive outcomes?

The theory of antagonism, posited by political theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, polarises artists as it challenges notions of what makes a “good society”.  While some proponents of socially-engaged art believe we should be working towards consensus-driven, socially ameliorative artistic outcomes, advocates of antagonism promote the idea that art is more honest and plural when it accounts for division and disagreement. The theory of antagonism contends that conflict is an essential condition of a “good society”. Mouffe writes:

What is a “good society”? Is it a society pacified and harmonious where basic disagreements have been overcome and where an overlapping consensus has been established about a single interpretation of common values? Or is it a society with a vibrant public sphere where many conflicting views can be expressed and where there is the possibility to choose among legitimate alternative projects? [1]

Like Mouffe, I argue in favour of a model of society that provides a place for dissensus and vibrant debate, rather than enforce an idealised social cohesion and consensus. Socially-engaged artists should endeavor to not ascribe pejorative or negative connotations to the notions of “disruption” or “antagonism”. These approaches provide ways of accommodating plurality, paradox and tension in our art, as well as prompts for thinking through social problems.

Disruptive artworks can make urgent, incisive critiques of the social order, destabilising unquestioned assumptions. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981), for example, a sculptural intervention which inconveniently dissected a New York public square, interrupted the logic of public space and unsettled habits and routines. Australian artist Gabrielle de Vietri’s Three Teams added a third football team to Australian Rules Football, disturbing an established system and opening up debate about alternative forms of collective activity. Santiago Sierra’s Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor Leste, Iraq and Vietnam Facing the Corner (2013) forced viewers into an uncomfortable position of culpability in a work that both honoured and shamed war veterans.While these works do not always generate reassuring or positive feelings, they do produce destabilising insights that disrupt the logic of social norms and lead the way to thinking about new possibilities beyond the staus quo.

There will be artists who remain unconvinced of the value of disruption, believing a critique of the social order to be less preferable or effective than a tangible, positive societal change. To those artists, I offer this advocacy of the role of “criticism” (another misunderstood term, which often gets conflated with negative carping) by Michel Foucault (thanks to Catherine Ryan for directing me to this):

Criticism consists in uncovering [an unexamined] thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.

Understood in those terms, criticism (and radical criticism) is utterly indispensable for any transformation. For a transformation that would remain within the same mode of thought, a transformation that would only be a certain way of better adjusting the same thought to the reality of things, would only be a superficial transformation.

On the other hand, as soon as people begin to have trouble thinking things the way they have been thought, transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult, and entirely possible.[2]

In other words, criticism and disruption are transformative forces which have an important place in socially-engaged art. Art contributes to social change by disturbing our relationship to our present social conditions. It should make what is easily accepted seem problematic, not just provide practical solutions to obvious problems.


[1] Chantal Mouffe, “Pluralism, Dissensus and Democratic Citizenship”, in Fred Inglis, ed.: Education and the Good Society (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 42.
[2] Michel Foucault, “So is it important to think?”, in J. Faubion, ed.: Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three (New York: New Press, 2000 [1981]), p. 456.

About the contributor: Amy Spiers is an Australian artist and writer interested in participatory, socially-engaged and public art. She is currently studying a PhD at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships, Faculty of the VCA and MCM, University of Melbourne. Recently with the artist Catherine Ryan, she has been creating artworks that provoke questions about the present social order—particularly about the gaps and silences in public discourse, the things that are not or cannot be acknowledged. amyspiers.tumblr.com and thefuturesofthepast.wordpress.com.