In 1964, the Czech artist Milan Knížák invited several of his friends to take part in A Demonstration for All the Senses—an artwork consisting of a sequence of faintly absurd actions he choreographed for them in Prague. They had to spend five minutes in a room where perfume had been spilled; they filed past a man playing a double bass while lying on his back in the street; they had to arrange a series of objects in a row and then move the row forward by 20 centimetres; they were each asked to tear a page from a book; and so on. In the following decade, the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal developed his ‘Invisible Theatre’ while in exile in Buenos Aires, planting actors in given environments where they performed actions before unwitting ‘spectators’. In one such event, an actor ordered an expensive dish in a restaurant, only to reveal he could not pay for it, then offered to settle the bill with his own labour. At this point other planted actors struck up a broader conversation on the disparity between the cost of a restaurant meal and a worker’s pay, before collecting money from the regular diners to cover the outstanding bill. Some thirty years later, in 2009, Thomas Hirschhorn staged the Bijlmer-Spinoza Festival: a series of lectures, workshops and dramatic productions, all put on in a sprawling jerry-built structure that also housed a library dedicated to Spinoza and a display on the history of the Bijlmer, a large housing estate on the southern fringe of Amsterdam. Residents acted in the dramatic workshops, attended the lectures or looked on in bemusement.

These are just three of the many participatory art projects Claire Bishop describes in Artificial Hells. The mid-1990s and early years of the new century saw a surge of interest in such artworks, and the emergence of a lively debate around them, as commentators defended given artists or tendencies and tried to develop critical tools for evaluating their work. Much of the early running was made by the writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who argued, in Relational Aesthetics (1998), that participatory work countered the atomization of capitalist society, working to create temporary micro-communities and so, as he famously put it, to ‘re-stitch the relational fabric’. Of Bourriaud’s many critics, Bishop—a British art historian based in New York—has been both the sharpest and the most persistent, taking issue with his views in a series of articles published in Artforum, October and elsewhere. Though she claims that the participatory projects described in Artificial Hells have ‘little to do with’ Bourriaud’s thesis, the book nevertheless articulates a position that is sharply distinguished from his. More importantly, her understanding of ‘participation’ in art is grounded in a more fine-grained historical account of its development than we ever get from Bourriaud.

The book is organized around a sequence of case studies, tracing a historical arc from the brink of the First World War to the present. Bishop argues that the recent revival of participatory art should be seen in relation to two earlier moments, both marked by broader social and political upheavals. She concentrates first on participatory events put on in the years either side of 1917, then on projects realized around 1968, and finally on works created after the fall of Communism in 1989. ‘Triangulated’, she writes, ‘these three dates form a narrative of the triumph, heroic last stand and collapse of a collectivist vision of society.’ This is the backdrop to the resurgence of participation since the 1990s—the artistic ‘project’ becoming ‘a privileged vehicle of utopian experimentation at a time when a leftist project seemed to have vanished from the political imaginary’. Within this overarching framework, Bishop offers incisive portraits of actions and events drawn from across the globe—starting with the serate, ‘evenings’, organized by the Italian Futurists, the revolutionary re-enactments of the early Soviet years and Paris Dada soirées. The 1960s moment is represented through chapters on the Situationists and ‘community art’ in the uk, as well as—more unusually—on the Eastern Bloc and the Latin American scene. Alongside Boal and Knížák, we are introduced to the radical, politicized work of Argentine artists of the 1960s, and to the events organized in Bratislava by Alex Mlynárčik, who designated the whole city a ‘ready-made’ for the week of 1–9 May 1965. The third, post-1989 phase embraces the recent return of participatory art. Here Bishop describes a range of actions and events under two broad headings: ‘delegated performance’, in which ‘everyday people are hired to perform on behalf of the artist’, and ‘pedagogical projects’, from Joseph Beuys’s Free International University of the 1970s to Hirschhorn’s Bijlmer-Spinoza Festival.

In the course of these chapters, Bishop seeks to counter many of the common art-world assumptions about participatory art, persuasively dismissing the idea that it is fundamentally consonant with democratic forms of organization and egalitarian values. Countering Bourriaud’s central thesis, she maintains, firstly, that such projects are not necessarily underpinned by the impulse to create or strengthen social ties. She points to artists in the Soviet Bloc, such as the Moscow-based Collective Actions Group—which was active in the late 1970s and 80s, putting on enigmatic, pared-down events in the countryside—and holds that their works were not designed to create new communities but to foster thought-provoking and essentially private, albeit shared, experiences, in the context of an officially enforced collectivism. She also contends that, while participatory art resists commodification, it cannot be assumed to align itself naturally and consistently with progressive social and political forces: the Futurists’ serate, made up of readings, speeches, musical recitals and other elements, were powered by a militaristic nationalism and provoked—as intended—the active and hostile participation of spectators, who regularly insulted and hurled objects at the performers. Bishop picks apart the equally common view that the value of a participatory project is determined by the extent to which crucial decisions in the making of the artwork are delegated to the viewer-participants: on this logic, the more the artist effaces him or herself from the process, the more admirable the project. Yet as Bishop emphasizes in her discussion of Knížák, for instance, many participatory works were also carefully stage-managed: their value as artworks was in no way diminished by the preponderant role of the artist in establishing the nature and extent of the participants’ involvement. ‘Models of democracy in art’, she writes, ‘do not have an intrinsic relationship to models of democracy in society.’

Bishop is at her best in passages like these, when challenging the pieties that get in the way of a more clear-eyed discussion of participatory art. But underlying her critical sallies is a larger point. Bishop feels that most commentators, from the cavalier but influential Bourriaud to the more rigorous Grant Kester, neglect the artistic dimensions of participatory artworks, assessing them with reference to moral and political criteria alone—such-and-such a work is good because it repairs the social tissue, because it is non-hierarchically organized, and so on. This critical and art-historical failing has, in Bishop’s eyes, a particularly damaging bureaucratic corollary in the widespread tendency to assess these works according to their practical, quantifiable outcomes. She associates this trend with New Labour’s cultural policy in the late 1990s, and more broadly with the toxic view that cultural participation can serve as a means of inculcating self-reliance, preparing subjects for (precarious) work in the service sector.

Participatory projects, Bishop argues, need to be understood and appraised as artworks. Where they are valued chiefly for the public services they provide, they tend to fall short both as artworks and as social facilities. Here she supports her view with various examples, including the community-arts movement in the uk, which by the 1980s was delivering well-intentioned but toothless and predictable projects, shedding its original liberatory impulses as it slid into ‘a situation of grant-dependency’. As Bishop sees them, such initiatives offered social services dressed up as art and provided only the feeblest compensation for the shrinking of the welfare state. What is most corrosive here, in her view, is the total instrumentalization of participatory art as a ‘creative’ public service. Such projects should instead be seen as artistic propositions that can succeed or fail independently of their measurable social effects. Artificial Hells thus has an affirmative purpose as well as a purely critical one: Bishop wants to hone a new approach to participatory projects, offering not just a shift in emphasis but a new critical vocabulary.

This becomes an especially pressing concern towards the end of the book, when Bishop tackles projects that she has directly experienced herself, such as Hirschhorn’s Bijlmer-Spinoza Festival. In the first half, she is discussing works known to her only through the accounts of artists, participants and other witnesses, and her prime objective in these cases is not to devise a new critical idiom but to situate carefully selected projects historically. She is plainly working on the assumption that participatory artworks have to be understood in relation to the situations that variously shaped them; here again she is distancing herself from Bourriaud, who maintains that such projects are valuable by virtue of social benefits that are presumably common to them all, and hence implies that all are worthwhile. For Bishop, this is far too sweeping. But in looking back at earlier tendencies in participatory art, she is also tracing historical trajectories that illuminate the art of the present. She sketches the emergence of certain conceptual tools, for instance the distinction between active and passive spectatorship which was crucial to the Futurists, who claimed to be liberating the audience from the passive role in which it had been cast in the theatre. Many texts today still draw on this distinction when they celebrate artworks that ‘activate the viewer’. (This is another of those tired notions targeted by Bishop, who notes approvingly that for Hirschhorn the opposition is a senseless one, as ‘real participation is the participation of thinking’; in other words, the ordinary work of the viewer contemplating an artwork need not be conceived as passive.) Bishop also shows how specific participatory practices paved the way for later works or tendencies: Boal’s Invisible Theatre, for example, has served as a crucial precedent for the recent work of artists such as the Slovakian Roman Ondák, who has asked volunteers to form queues in public spaces, and the British-German Tino Sehgal, who trains his collaborators to perform movements and chant but also to interact with members of the public.