Clickable Art, or, what does participation mean?

Published on January 17th, 2011

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Collection holders in the public and cultural sectors have raised questions concerning the online distribution of creative material. Until today, research and funding programmes focused mainly on digitising and licensing large collections. Having done this, the institutions now have to deal with their online audience: How to involve the audience in the online collections? And how to inform artists about the possibilities of sharing their works online? Artists were unsure about the added value of offering their works online, because what does online presentation, distribution and the possible sharing of your work or works in your collection involve?

Culture Vortex_online participation

January 17, 2011

In 2010 the Institute of Network Cultures started a collaborative innovation programme entitled Culture Vortex. This research aims to encourage public participation in online cultural (heritage) collections. Collection holders in the public and cultural sectors have raised questions concerning the online distribution of creative material. Until today, research and funding programmes focused mainly on digitising and licensing large collections. Having done this, the institutions now have to deal with their online audience: How to involve the audience in the online collections? And how to inform artists about the possibilities of sharing their works online? Artists were unsure about the added value of offering their works online, because what does online presentation, distribution and the possible sharing of your work or works in your collection involve? These are important issues to address. The main question the Culture Vortex study seeks to answer is:

How can an active audience be involved in online cultural material and how can an elaborate network culture be facilitated where participants will share, describe, review, tag, reuse or otherwise interact with the cultural works?

In order to be able to tackle this question, Virtueel Platform, V2_, DEN and the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk), explored the issue from a participatory point of view. Before attempting to answer the Culture Vortex question, we felt we needed to define what online audience participation means today, so we assembled a group of technical and cultural programmers, curators and researchers. We thought it was important to have those responsible for content and the technical people at the same table because they are not always aware of each other’s tasks, skills and responsibilities or what the (conceptual) wishes and (technical) possibilities are. To start we felt the need to (re)define the meaning of participation: What does participation mean today? We divided the participants into smaller groups so that we could focus on more specific topics: learning from the past, the influence of technique on content and vice versa, sustainability, and the relationships between large and small organisations.

Several e-mail exchanges and meetings led to a discussion about these issues, with a view to defining a future vision of online participation.

Participation in the arts

Seeking audience participation is nothing new in art practices: early Romantic-era artists formed groups that bemoaned the separation of art and its audience.[i] This attitude was underscored during the mid-19th century with Richard Wagner’s seminal essay ‘The Art-work of the Future’ (Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, 1849), in which he states that artists should realise that people [folk] are the true inventors and artists:

Not ye wise men, therefore, are the true inventors, but the Folk; for Want it was, that drove it to invention. All great inventions are the People’s deed; whereas the devisings of the intellect are but the exploitations, the derivatives, nay, the splinterings and disfigurements of the great inventions of the Folk.[ii]

Who, then, will be the Artist of the Future? The poet? The performer? The musician? The plastician?—Let us say it in one word: the Folk. That selfsame Folk to whom we owe the only genuine Art-work, still living even in our modern memory, however much distorted by our restorations; to whom alone we owe all Art itself.[iii]

Several radical art movements pursued Wagner’s ideals, either by aggressively trying to provoke the public through staging events and collective experiences (the Futurists) or by more subtly addressing the art authority, and the dissolution of artistic individuality and authorship (the Dadaists). However, these were only short-lived movements, which, in the end, often became victims of their own strategies, rapidly losing the power to shock and provoke and being too repetitive. Although these avant-garde movements encouraged audience interaction, their rigid attempts were frequently unsuccessful. Nevertheless, they did open the way for a rebirth of participatory art in the 1950s and 1960s, from Situationism, to Allan Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’, Fluxus, and Andy Warhol’s Factory, to the present.

It is important to realise that the concept of audience participation in these historical examples involved the audience in events that were strictly controlled by the artists. In most cases this meant little more than that the artist(s) and audience were together in the same room in which a happening or event unfolded. Contrary to Wagner’s ideas, only scant attention was given to the role of the audience, and participation was not seen as a collaborative and consensual process, as we like to think of it today. Especially in the virtual world of the World Wide Web the concepts of public (networking and sharing), interactive and participation already seem to be embedded in the medium.

In the online world, ‘audience participation’ is the magical phrase for the cultural sector, especially with regard to digital cultural heritage. Different types of participation are on offer, from active to reactive to passive: Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and submitting your own content (creation), remixing existing content or working with others (co-creation), labelling existing content (tagging), making selections, exhibitions or tours from available content (clouding), exchanges within and beyond gathered or created content (sharing and networking), and pushing ‘like’ or in some cases ‘dislike’ buttons (clicking). In addition, connections are made with the world beyond the Internet by staging events that involve surprise, game elements and so forth. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But what does audience participation really mean? What is possible? And what does the public really want? Studies show that only a small percentage of online visitors actually participate: most people are passive Internet users. We wondered to what extent the idea of participation has already been exhausted. At the same time we wondered if we really have overcome the coerciveness of the historical attempts to interact with the audience? Wagner’s notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total artwork’) can now be created and realised through technical means. But would he be pleased with the ‘random’ clicking or the competition that can derive from the many web2.0 participatory tools? Again, we seem to be far removed from Wagner’s vision of the individual who, regardless of class or education, seamlessly merges with the masses. Or, are we?

What is participation?

Our group of experts provided some interesting answers to these questions. There was general agreement about the literal meaning of participation. The etymology of the word ‘participation’ starts with the Latin participare (to participate), which derives from pars (part) and capere (to take). It emphasises action and the involvement of at least one direct object – something or someone who receives the action of the verb, i.e., actively participating in or contributing to a group. Taking this one step further, it was suggested that individuals should be involved in a group such that each of them participates in the group’s activities, challenges and successes. It follows that participation also means that participants should feel that they are co-owners of the group process, the content and the product. The next question is in what way, or whether, the online experience has changed this notion of participation?

In many ways it was confirmed that the definition of participation has not changed – online participation still involves the participation of people in (social) construction work, which is now enabled by network and database technology. The result of the work – the construction – may be temporary or permanent, and may have a free or structured form. This latter statement, however, is the bottleneck and it highlights the shortcomings of the definition of participation in an online context. The minimum level of participation in this sense is pushing a button to trigger an action (for many people membership of online communities or popular social networking sites such as Hyves and Facebook already constitutes participation). But looking at the goal of participation may shed a different light on participation, as was suggested by some members of the group.[iv] Online participation can be a goal in itself but it can also be a means to another goal. The focus may be on the event itself (the experience) or on the product of that event (data, information, knowledge). In the latter case, the product can be the final result, or it can be a half-product that will be (re-)used in another construction. In this way the participatory action becomes one action in a chain of actions, sometimes even without the participant being aware of it.

The target audience for online participation ranges from the general public to specialised small groups. In most cases, however, online participation (like offline participation) requires someone – a director or an orchestrator – to instigate the construction process. People need to be motivated to participate, which also leads to the assumption that participants will be ‘rewarded’ for their participation, or perhaps even ‘penalised’ for not participating. The benefits of online participation may lie with the participants themselves, with the director, with third parties, or with all of these at once.

In conclusion, online participation can be fleeting or it can be a collaborative creation or activity – and both can also happen simultaneously. In this sense online participation is not very different from offline participation; the greatest difference lies in the goal of participation, which is often not very transparent in online participation. There thus seems to be a need to redefine participation for each specific context. Therefore, the crucial question for online participation is: What do the providers actually offer, and what are the roles of both parties in that process? The answer can be found in an obvious remark: participants can see, do and learn a great deal, but it is vitally important for them to engage critically. In order to better understand what online participation involves, we discussed good and bad examples, ranging from a historical perspective to the present-day.

Examples of online participation: from hypertext to tagging and forking[v]

We asked the participants about the founding years of the Internet, what happened fifteen years ago on the web? What was done to attract the audience and what was offered to them in terms of participation? Which projects have survived and which have suffered a (possibly) premature death? Or, what can we learn from the past? What is valuable now, what works and why does it work well? How long will it last, or, how sustainable is participation? And finally, will smaller organisations be able to cope and survive in a world of rapidly growing possibilities?

Not surprisingly, we noticed that many models that were developed in the past still prevail, for example, social communication in networks or communities (known from IRC, MUUs and MOOs), and sharing and remixing content. Some of these (technical) examples, including hyperlinking, sound- and image recognition, personalisation and data mining, have altered or influenced content. However, these are not all inherently Internet dependent, nor have some been developed to their full potential. The most obvious example is hypertext. The ideal of writing together from different locations, i.e., a shared reading, writing and composing process in which various small pieces are tied together, forming the story from its trail, has not yet been implemented to its full extent or on a wide enough scale. At the moment a maximum of 140 characters seems to be the default.

Tagging tools appear to be the most popular online participation tools today. Tagging is active, it has a low threshold, it happens almost intuitively and it generates a ‘quick-win’. The downside of tagging, the often non-transparent goal or gain, has already been noted, but tagging also has its benefits, especially in the field of cultural heritage, where tagging can help museums to gather more information about their collections. It offers the opportunity to gain deeper insights into what people find meaningful, and at the same time neglected works may (re-)surface. A popular term for this method is crowd-sourcing, where the people involved are labelled citizen curators and citizen researchers. Tagging may also encourage closer examination, which in turn enhances the art experience and may lead to an increase in knowledge. However, continuously engaging people through tagging is difficult. Oftentimes games add a dimension that motivates people to make return visits. Moreover, an institute’s reputation can also be a reason to participate and add content to existing information. In such cases the challenge is how to attract people to your site and content.

One way to do this is to open up the content such that people can reuse or share it. In software terms this is sometimes referred to as ‘forking’. ‘Forking’ is used in software development circles to describe a method whereby developers take a legal copy of source code from a software package and develop it independently, creating a distinct piece of software.[vi] Of course, this can be difficult to do because of copyright issues, but it proved successful in those cases where it was possible. This relates to the other aspect of participation, namely creation. Unfortunately, finding out what happens with ‘new’ content is frequently complex. A way to circumvent this is to organise live events where people can present their latest versions. In this way platforms or networks are used to gather and entice people. Presenting the works in the analogue world can be an additional incentive. Another way is to frame the content in a larger context, on a shared or at least connected database, for example. This makes it easier to find, makes it more accessible, and will also increase the value of a collection.

Another issue that came up was personalisation. Commercial companies are very successful in offering related information based on search entries. It would be worthwhile to see which of these strategies the cultural heritage sector could use, but this does not mean that this sector should adopt all kinds of different tools. Needless to say, the amount of information most commercial organisations deal with exceeds that of the cultural heritage institutes, which makes it profitable to provide extensive research and development periods. Devices are continuously developed and companies tend to specialise in certain aspects, for example, Amazon focuses on related items, whereas Facebook only offers a shared text-based communication platform. What the cultural heritage sector can learn is that specialisation is crucial for participation to succeed (and yield profits) in the long term. Experiments and tools often remain mired in concept or form instead of being transformed into other contexts or fields. Distributing open content would be a way to solve this: sharing and connecting to others can guarantee ongoing development.

Furthermore, specialised small forums or themed groups function best. The cultural sector needs to get beyond the participation hype and focus again on what they are good at: mediating content. The group often mentioned that content and particularly specialised content, organised in networks, will impact on participation. The solution is simple, concentrate on your content and make sure that you manage it as best as possible. Some participants suggested hiring an additional curator instead of initiating all kinds of online participation projects. This remark underscores the importance of knowing and understanding your goals when encouraging participatory behaviour. Participation can never be a goal in itself and should always derive from the content.


Who controls the definition of participation – the artist, curator, critic, programmer, or participant – is no longer the question. Participation is now a contested site collectively defined by all of these actors, each of whom must surrender a measure of authorial control.[vii]

Participation, be it initiated, (re-)activated or passive, is part of daily life. The offline and online worlds are not very different when it comes to participation. Overall, active participation works best in small-scale initiatives that have a clear focus (themed groups). A sense of ownership of the content by the participant is advisable. Transparency in the organisation and a clear goal are essential for success and longevity. Most forms of participation will increase the value of your collection, and connecting to other platforms or databases, i.e., becoming part of a larger whole, is even more beneficial. An important lesson was that more technology also means less sustainability, so, keep things simple and join forces. However, it is important to remember that successful knowledge sharing and distributing needs open content, and perhaps more importantly, an open attitude.

Annet Dekker
English edit: Mark Poysden

[i] Groys, Boris, ‘A Genealogy of Participatory Art’, in Rudolf Frieling, et al., The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, catalogue to the exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco: Thames & Hudson, 2008, pp. 19–31. See also Bring the Noise, 2009 (accessed December 2010).

[ii] Wagner, Richard, The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works (1849), trans. William Ashton Ellis, Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993, p. 80.

[iii] Ibid., p. 205.

[iv] For individual remarks and observations see: (accessed 1 December 2010).

[v] Examples of existing works and websites are named at (accessed December 2010).

[vi] The term ‘fork’ comes from the POSIX standard for portable operating systems. Here, ‘fork’ is a system call, which a process uses to create a copy of itself. After the fork two copies of the process exist: a parent and a child. The two then run separately and can do completely different things. (accessed December 2010).

[vii] This is a pun on the introduction by Rudolf Frieling in his essay ‘Toward Participation in Art’, in Rudolf Frieling, et al., The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, San Francisco: Thames & Hudson, 2008, catalogue to the exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

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