Participatory art can come in many different forms with different kinds of features. In this article, a project by Luzinterruptus that uses a multitude of these features will be discussed. Luzinterruptus is an anonymous art group that carries out urban interventions in public spaces. The project that will be discussed is called: Literature vs. Traffic, and because it is a public intervention, it is a signature work for Luzinterruptus. Literature vs. Traffic is a project that floods the streets with a stream of books. These books flow along with traffic and are illuminated with lights. At night, the visitors are encouraged to dive into the stream of books to take some of the books home or to meddle with the way the books are set up. It was staged in multiple cities across the world that include Utrecht, Melbourne, Madrid, and New York.
The project aims to make room for fiction, including poems and literature. Along with that, it is also a form of activism. The meaning is crucial to the project Literature vs. Traffic, which turns simple books into art. To analyze the project and its meaning, concepts of participatory art will be used. Participatory art is a collective term for all kinds of art that use participation in some form. Further in this paper participatory art will be defined and explained further, concepts concerning activism will be taken into account, and then lastly, it will look at how this work can be seen as relational.
Defining Participatory Art
Explaining the project in the light of participatory art needs a dive deeper into the definition of participatory art. Participatory art is part of participatory culture, which is “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations” and a “participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (Jenkins, Ito & boyd, 2015). This culture is very prominent in participatory art, and therefore also in the project discussed. Participatory art is defined in the simplest way by Claire Bishop in the introduction of her book Participation (2006) as art that requires the active participation of the viewer.
There is an emphasis on the collective social experience and collaboration. The introduction speaks about three concerns for participatory art that are also prominent in the work of Debord (1957). The first one is activation, there needs to be an active subject. The second is authorship, in an artwork that is participatory authorship is given to the audience, which can be seen as democratic and egalitarian. Lastly, there is a concern about the community, which is where the social bond between people is restored.
Applying participatory art to the artwork
Literature vs. Traffic is an artwork that can be considered participatory. The artwork is prominently affected by the active participation of the viewer. This participation was apparent by giving people the chance to go into the artwork and flip through the books, change their positions, and even take the books home. By allowing this, the meaning of the artwork changes significantly since it does not only show that there is a need for more room to talk and read more fiction but it actively engages and encourages people to do this. Taking up room in the street leaves no room for avoidance by the public. Flipping through the books encourages people to read more and gives them a free opportunity to see what types of fiction they may like, and that could kickstart the literature journey of an audience member. On top of that, the audience can take books home. It is almost like a souvenir of art, but it is one with a purpose. To others, it may be a simple book, but it is an example of a need for literature to be reinstated as part of the dominant culture.
the artwork is also a form of activism. Not only is it trying to make literature part of the dominant culture again by flooding the audience with books, but it is also creating action through of the setup of the artwork.
Here, the three concerns of Debord for participatory art are also evident. Literature vs. Traffic is an artwork that activates people by allowing them to go into the artwork and do something to it. The authorship is given to the audience and is not with the creators anymore. The audience gives new meaning to the artwork by actually caring about the pieces of literature spread on the ground. There is also a community that is formed through the artwork, the audience is invited to talk about literature to one another. It is not an artwork that is meant to view solo, the power lies in the effect on the community. Talking about stories, poems, and literature is what the artwork tries to gain. Nowadays, society has forgotten about literature, but Luzinterruptus tries to make it appear again. Viewers are turned into readers by getting affected by the artwork. What is also shown is that it creates a participatory culture, one where the contributions of the people matter, and where a social connection can be felt. Visiting, reading, and taking a book home creates this bond and makes the visit matter, it can change the world even though this may be just a small gesture to this change.
The audience goes into the artwork to read, change the positions of the books and take them home
Silent protest as an invitation to participate in literature and art
As mentioned before, the artwork is also a form of activism. Not only is it trying to make literature part of the dominant culture again by flooding the audience with books, but it is also creating action through of the setup of the artwork. The setup is thousands of books flooding the streets, streets that are normally flooded by cars and other traffic. It is a silent protest against this traffic and pollution in urban life. Instead, this artwork replaces the irritation of the noise and the dirt that pollution and traffic bring with books, where the soft rustling of the pages and the soft light used in the installation is like a breath of fresh air in this normally overcrowded, loud, and hard world. They also created a manner of being against pollution of the world by giving the books that remained on the streets after the exhibition ended a second life. By giving them to thrift stores they end up with someone who will love them again instead of being dumped in a landfill as a piece of trash.
This form of activism is effective because people who are 'on the go' did not ask to be there and are turned into the audience of the artwork by accident. The intention of the audience at the place of the exhibition does not have to be viewing the artwork. Some of them are possibly on their way home or to a store or something else that just happens to be on the route where the artwork is. This audience may not want to be there but they are still confronted by a sea of books on the streets that normally would be filled with cars, bikes, and pedestrians. They may be surprised to see the calmness and therefore are also participating in the artwork. The artwork has done its job of making them surprised by the calmness and it shows the difference from a normal day.
The meaning of the artwork being a protest is working if the audience realizes that this calmness and softness are much better than everyday life. Putting it out in the street is like letting the audience accidentally meet with the artwork and its meaning and gives a much different effect than putting a flood of books on the floor of a museum. This is also what Wagner talks about in his Art-Work of the Future as mentioned by Groys (2008) in A Genealogy of Participatory Art. What is explained here is how futurists, Dadaists, and more were trying to be more direct when it came to reaching their audience and with that trying to get the audience out of its passive attitude of just watching. The artwork does something similar by putting the books directly on a street where a lot of traffic is normal and where people often walk past. This is very direct since it speaks to the problem directly, and a lot of people will meet the artwork while being on their way.
Relational as a conversation starter
Lastly, the artwork also can be considered relational. This form of participatory art can be defined as “art that takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space” (Bourriaud, 1998). Normally, reading a book is mostly a solo activity. But here, the activity is shared by people. The way the artwork is set up allows for this to happen. Being out in public makes reading parts of the books a shared experience, the viewer can do it together with the rest of the audience. It allows them to talk about certain sections of a book or poem that interested them. This is especially evident at night when the audience is allowed inside the borders of the artwork to flip through the books which makes it an even more public activity that others can still watch and it can be done together with other audience members.
A completely mundane activity is now becoming art and a collaborative activity with others. Reading the books has become creative and the viewer has become engaged in a life-artistic activity. Seeing Literature vs. Traffic as a relational kind of participatory art largely contributes to the meaning of the artwork as wanting to create attention for literature, since it connects people by making them read and talk about the books on the streets.
The meaning created through participatory art
The meaning of Literature vs. Traffic is created and supported by participatory art features in the artwork. This article has viewed the artwork from the overarching perspective that is participatory art in its entity and a few more detailed perspectives. It was concluded that it uses the three concerns that are often used in participatory art, especially by Debord. This consists of giving the authorship to the audience, creating some kind of community, and activating the audience. All of these are apparent in the artwork and give meaning to the artwork. Moving the books and taking them home, helps to activate people and gives them more meaning since it does what this artwork is meant to do: trying to give more attention to literature. The authorship is shifted since the meaning has changed because of the audience attending and moving the books and a community is created by encouraging people to talk about literature. Diving into the more specific perspective of activism shows us another meaning of the artwork, and makes it even more participatory. The silent protest against traffic, pollution, and the dirt that comes with it, is meant to surprise passers-by who did not mean to get involved with this artwork in any way but are involved especially when they get surprised by how clean and quiet it is by putting the artwork in this space. The relational perspective has shown that the activity of reading a book does not just have to be a solo activity that is meant to be done behind closed doors and can be a collaborative activity in public too. Making it something collaborative makes room for literature in society again since it allows people to talk about it together. The relational aspect supports the meaning of making room for fiction. Together, these overarching and more specific perspectives of participatory art make the meaning of Literature vs. Traffic created by Luzinterruptus.
Bishop, C. (2006). Introduction // Viewers as Producers. In Bishop C. (Ed.) Participation [Ebook]. (pp. 10-17)
Bourriaud, N. (1998) Relational Aesthetics. In Bishop, C. (Ed.) Participation [Ebook]. (pp. 160-171)
Debord, G. (1957). Towards a Situationist International. In Bishop C. (Ed.) Participation [Ebook]. (pp. 96-101)
Groys, B. (2008) A Genealogy of Participatory Art. (pp. 24-28)
Jenkins, H., Ito, N. & Boyd, D. (2015). Participatory culture in a networked era : a conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics. Polity Press. (pp. 1-31.)
Opening ILFU: Literature vs Traffic • ILFU. (n.d.). https://ilfu.com/agenda/opening-ilfu-literature-vs-traffic-eng