The Art of Participation

“The power of creation and imagination can break through the barriers of this purported realism and discover real alternatives to the present order of things. Even artistic experimentation and creation that is not explicitly political can do important political work, sometimes revealing the limits of our imagination and at other times fuelling it.”

-Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 2009

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Related link:

Participation is powerful expression, of simply taking part in different aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural events. ‘All forms of arts require participation to some extent. After all, experiencing art (observing, listening, watching etc.) is also a kind of participation. Artworks have very rarely been created not to be experienced by a public (i.e., Antique Greek representation of Gods).During the second half of the 20th century the relation between artists and the public has profoundly changed. The public has become a component of the creative process and participation has become a new territory to explore. It is important to distinguish between the concepts of participative art and participatory art projects. The latter describes artworks in which the artist uses participation as a component of art making. In participative art projects however, participation is the project and the artist creates the framework allowing for participation with no preconceived ideas of the outcome. As in participative democracy or participative management it is not so much the fact that people participate that matters but rather the fact that participation is the main principle governing human interactions in such models.’

Available at

[Accessed: 2nd August’2011]

Available at​

[Accessed: 2nd August’2011]

The artifact that I've selected to discuss in this essay is referred to as ‘When faith moves mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montanas)’ by a visionary master of participatory art Francis Alys. On April 11, 2002, five hundred volunteers were supplied with shovels and asked to form a single line at the foot of a giant sand dune in Ventanilla, an area outside Lima. This human comb pushed a certain quantity of sand a certain distance, thereby moving a sixteen-hundred-foot-long sand dune about four inches from its original position.

This was documented in film like most of Francis Alys’s works and the link is given below.

[Lima 2002, in collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, Video (36 minutes) and photographic documentation of an action, ‘making of’ video (15 minutes)

Available at

[Accessed: 2nd August’2011]

Upon writing this essay on the theme of participation I had to go through several hours of video footage of Alys’s art projects and to me none of them made sense as this is a very new kind of art for me. I didn’t seem to interpret his projects as they all proposed meaningless nostalgic actions. But little did I know that I was completely missing the point that all of his projects have metaphorical concealed messages that makes his art project stand out in today’s contemporary world. And it’s those dogmatic messages that make his practice one of most compelling in recent art and that he manages to find poetic and imaginative ways to address the crises of contemporary life.

‘His projects confront subjects such as informal labour and homelessness in Mexico City, the promises and failures of modernising programmes in Latin America, contested territories in Israel/Palestine, and immigration routes between Africa and Europe. Rather than using dry and didactic forms of documentation or narrative, his work involve actions such as pushing an ice block through city streets for 9 hours or trailing a dribbled line of green paint over dusty ground, getting hundreds of volunteers to move a sand dune or orchestrating lines of children carrying toy boats into waves. The poetic qualities of Alys’s projects reside in their fantastical absurdity, their transience or incompletion, their imaginative imagery, and most of all in their enigmatic openness to interpretation. The most significant question he poses-to himself as well as to his fellow viewers –is whether such poetic acts, while underlining the ‘senselessness’ of particular real situations, can also create a space for new ways of thinking that will lead in turn to the possibility of change’.

‘It is evident that there is a motto to all of Francis Alys’s art projects. And in ‘when faith moves mountain’ it was ‘Maximum effort, minimum result’-rhetorically inverts the principle of efficiency that lies at the heart of modern economic thought. However Alys’s contribution to the Lima Biennale of 2002 transposes such questioning to the field of social action. To be sure the enormity of collective effort and expenses that historical change imposes one generation after another seems completely out of proportion with paucity of the gains achieved. However, rather than regarding political engagement as a mirage, Alys’s work sets up an alternative standard to that underlying economy of social history. That a few hundred volunteers barely displaced a sand dune located on the outskirts of Lima physically enacted the canonical parable of the powers of faith. The event was an attempt to cast profane light on the significance that social movements and political transitions have on their own, once they are perceived beyond the mystique of ‘the revolution’.

At the very time Peru was undergoing a transition from Alberto Fujimori’s dictatorship to its current squalid democracy.Alys’s must have found it necessary to rescue the value of social mobilisation as an absurd act, which ought to be understood as a miracle of sorts, valuable for its own sake, independent of the result. Producing the result on a sand slope on the edge of Lima, where millions of displaced rural people migrated during and after the civil war of the 1980s, suggested both a critique of the romanticism of Land art and a call to rethink the role of informal settlements as a force of historical transformation. The fact that most of the volunteers were university students distanced the work from the current presumptions of so-called ‘collaborative works’. The organisers of the action were understandably reluctant to reduce politics to the direct interaction with the ‘communities’, on the presupposition of any luck of mediation between art and a specific society. The work questioned the iconography and concepts of mass politics, insofar as it addressed the significance of the poetic motifs and affects in political formations. As Peruvian theorist Gustav Buntinx argued, subverting one of the dogmas of the Shining Path guerrilla movement: Illusion is also Power’

(Mark Godfrey,Klaus Biesenbach, Kerry Greenberg, 2010.Francis Alys:A story of Deception

London SW1P 4RG, Tate Trustees by Tate Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprises Ltd)

Throughout my research on the artefact I’ve also managed to find an article that is based on a personal interview with Francis Alys- ‘A thousand words: Francis Alys talks about When Faith Moves Mountains’ by Francis Alys“Lima, a city of nine million people, is situated on a strip of land along the Pacific coast of Peru. The city is surrounded by enormous sand dunes on which shantytowns have sprung up, populated by economic immigrants and political refugees who escaped the civil war fought during the '80s and '90s by the military and guerrilla groups like Shining Path. After a week of scouting, we chose the Ventanilla dunes, where more than seventy thousand people live with no electricity or running water.

When Faith Moves Mountains is a project of linear geological displacement. It has been germinating ever since I first visited Lima, with Cuauhtemoc Medina, the Mexican curator and critic. We were there for the last Lima Bienal, in October 2000, about a year before the Fujimori dictatorship finally collapsed. The city was in turmoil. There were clashes on the street and the resistance movement strengthened. It was a desperate situation, and I felt that it called for an "epic response, a "beau geste" at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent. Insinuating a social allegory into those circumstances seemed to me more fitting than engaging in some sculptural exercise.

When Faith Moves Mountains attempts to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imaginal landscape of a place. The action is meant to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art histories), to insert another rumour into its narratives. If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment, it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth. As Medina said while we were in Lima, "Faith is a means by which one resigns oneself to the present in order to invest in the abstract promise of the future." The dune moved: This wasn't a literary fiction; it really happened. It doesn't matter how far it moved, and in truth only an infinitesimal displacement occurred--but it would have taken the wind years to move an equivalent amount of sand. So it's a tiny miracle. The story starts there. The interpretations of it needn't be accurate, but must be free to shape themselves along the way.”

[SAUL ANTON, COPYRIGHT 2002 Art forum International Magazine, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group]

Available at

[Accessed: 5th August’2011]

Available at

[Accessed: 8th August’2011]

‘It is astonishing how the art of participation is affecting our daily lives; everything we do in today’s society tends to be towards some sort of reward or recognition among others and the only way to achieve this is to put ourselves on the line. I’m sure that participation takes various forms and can also merge itself with other themes such as visibility and visuality, technology and democracy and even beauty; hence participation and technology goes hand on hand because of the very nature of the internet technology that rapidly grew as a new field of exploration for artists-let me elaborate on what have I just said, it’s obvious that everybody wants to be treated like a celebrity and show off their talents or absurdity to others.Having said that nowadays social media sites provides us with that opportunity when we update our daily on-going life and put up anything that interests ourselves or get amused by; making sure everyone else on that media site responds to the post and we desperately check the site for any recent comments on the post or anyone else’s posts that brings out the participatory artist inside us and lets us take part in it.

Being connected with others, being active and taking notice, learning and giving are all fundamental to people’s daily experience of life. They are also fundamental to being a true participant in society, big or small, in a neighbourhood, a city or a country. The arts in all their forms, at voluntary, amateur and professional level, are one of the richest routes people take to find themselves and to find others. In an imperfect world, the ability of an individual and their collective potential is unevenly distributed. Personal, social, economic and political factors determine the extent to which each person can take up the opportunity they normally have as citizens of democratic society. Art has neither the responsibility nor the capacity alone to address all the deficits that may exist.’

Available at:

[Accessed: 10th August’2011]


Related books:

(Mark Godfrey,Klaus Biesenbach, Kerry Greenberg, 2010.Francis Alys:A story of Deception

London SW1P 4RG, Tate Trustees by Tate Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprises Ltd)

ISBN-10: 1854378406

ISBN-13: 978-1854378408

Cuauhtemoc Medina, Russell Ferguson , Jean Fisher, 22 May 2007 Francis Alys: Contemporary Artists

Phaidon Press Ltd

ISBN-10: 0714843210

ISBN-13: 978-0714843216

Related web links:







(Suggested readings on Francis Alys)

  1. ^Carlos, Basualdo. "Head to Toes: Francis Alys's Paths of Resistance." ArtForum (April 1999).

  2. ^Heiser, Jörg. "Walk on the Wild Side." Frieze Magazine. Sept. 2002. Web. 24 Aug. 2011. [1].

  3. ^Francis Alÿs MoMA Collection, New York.

  4. ^Alastair Smart (13 August 2010), Francis Alÿs at Tate Modern The Telegraph.

  5. ^Holland Cotter (March 13, 2007), Francis Alÿs: Thoughtful Wanderings of a Man With a Can New York Times.

  6. ^Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing, 13 February - 28 March 2009 Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh.

  7. ^Francis Alÿs: Fabiola, 2 May - 20 September, 2009 National Portrait Gallery, London.

  8. ^Francis Alÿs, When Faith Moves Mountains, Event, 2002, Lima.

  9. ^Christopher Knight (October 06, 2007), Artist rolls out his Sisyphus side Los Angeles Times.

  10. ^Alÿs, et al., Francis Alÿs, p. 116.

  11. ^Jörg Heiser, Walk on the Wild Side Frieze Magazine, Issue 69, September 2002.

  12. ^Francis Alÿs, The Last Clown (1995-2000) Tate Modern, London

  13. ^Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, 15 June – 5 September 2010 Tate Modern, London.

  14. ^Katya Kazakina (September 20, 2007), Miraculous St. Fabiola Appears at NYC Museum -- 100s of Times Bloomberg.

  15. ^Francis Alÿs: Fabiola, 2 May - 20 September 2009 National Portrait Gallery, London.

  16. ^Francis Alÿs: Fabiola, 12 March - 28 August, 2011 Schaulager, Basel.

  17. ^The Renaissance Society

  18. ^