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Friday 09/05

Whose Terms? A Glossary for Social Practice: TRUST

by Emily Zimmerman, tagged with Whose Terms?, Emily Zimmerman, trust, social practice, glossary
Cover Image:

Graciela Carnevale, Acción del Encierro [Confinement Action], 1968. Performance: “Ciclo de Arte Experimental,” Rosario, Argentina. Collection Archivo Graciela Carnevale. Photo: Carlos Militello

Emily Zimmerman contributes to our collective glossary-building with an entry on TRUST, the third of seven successive posts on terms associated with social practice, initiated via an open call.

Socially engaged and participatory works, to the extent that they challenge inherited forms of spectatorship, are underpinned by an invisible economy of trust between the viewer, the artist, and the institution. These relations are riddled with an anxiety of participation, based on the pressure socially engaged and participatory works apply to tacit assumptions of physical, emotional, and social safety. Engagement with these works issues from a decision by a participant to physically enter into the embodied conditions of a piece, partially motivated by that individual’s understanding of the shifting power dynamics between the viewer, the artist, and the institution. Jacques Derrida refers to these variable powers dynamics as “the invisible theater of hospitality,” in which the host has the potential to become a hostage.1

In Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012), Claire Bishop calls for a new set of criteria by which to evaluate participatory pieces:

One thing is clear: visual analyses fall short when confronted with the documentary material through which we are given to understand many of these practices. To grasp participatory art from images alone is almost impossible…They rarely provide more than fragmentary evidence, and convey nothing of the affective dynamic that propels artists to make these projects and people to participate in them.” 2

Examining the techniques employed to build or dismantle a set of expectations in participatory works can provide key insight into these affective dynamics.

Trust is inherently related to risk and power. Trust within socially engaged and participatory works is multilayered, relating not only to an encounter between people but also to the larger institutional and societal conditions in which the participant is received. Hospitality, the set of gestures that are performed by both the institution and the artist to receive a public, plays an essential role in establishing a viewer’s expectations and setting in motion the “affective dynamic” that is to play out in the work between the public, the artist, and the institution.

There is an extraordinary range of participatory works that actively engage trust. The works that most clearly elucidate trust as a kind of affective medium are ones in which a physical threat is present, for example, Graciela Carnevale’s Acción del Encierro [Confinement Action] (1968) as part of the “Ciclo de Arte Experimental” exhibition, or Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974). In Acción del Encierro, Carnevale invited individuals to an opening and locked them in the gallery, where they remained trapped for just over an hour until a bystander broke the glass. In Rhythm 0, Abramović laid out a series of instruments that viewers could use on her, including honey, scissors, and a loaded gun. In contrast to these cases, there are also extremely subtle modulations of trust, evident in pieces such as Caitlin Berrigan’s Spectrum of Inevitable Violence (2010), a food fight between participants grouped according to their socioeconomic status, cultural capital, class status, and social mobility. This range certainly does not correlate to a spectrum of success or failure of a work, but points toward a vocabulary for how works individually negotiate trust as an affective condition.

Emily Zimmerman is Associate Curator at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.



1 Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 109.


2 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

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