Alicja Khatchikian


On participation, beyond participation. a conversation with Maya Quattropani by Alicja Khatchikian

On participation, beyond participation
a conversation with Maya Quattropani
by Alicja Khatchikian

Since Nicolas Bourriaud’s critical work Relational Aesthetics1 was first published in 1998, participation and relationality have become some of the most debated key terms in contemporary art. Expanding on the Marxian notion of social interstice, as well as on Félix Guattari’s ideas of proximity and micropolitics2, Bourriaud’s curatorial proposition of ‘everyday micro-utopias’3 framed relational aesthetics as a process of creation that is both individually negotiated and collectively produced. However, despite widespread interest in his ideas — likely encouraged by Bourriaud’s professional status as curator and co-founder of Palais de Tokyo —, his paradigm of art as ‘a state of encounter’4 raised a wave of criticism among art theorists and historians5.
Amongst others, CUNY Professor of Art History Claire Bishop famously criticized the expanded field of relational practices6, including socially engaged, community-based, dialogic, participatory, research-based and collaborative art, and posed an antithetical question: what is spectacle if not the staging of a false consensus?
At the core of her critique lies Bourriaud’s straightforward equation between participation in art and models of democracy in society7. Drawing from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s notion of antagonism8, Bishop argues that dissent and confrontation, rather than consensus, are the constitutive features for radical democracy. Therefore, while Bourriaud’s utopias enthusiastically welcomed those kinds of relationalities that practices of participation temporarily propose, Bishop’s primary concern is that ‘participatory and socially engaged art has become largely exempt from art criticism’9, as artistic criteria are being overshadowed by ethical concerns within the social turn in contemporary art10. In fact, she argues, there seems to be little attention to form and content of such works, beyond a plethora of emancipatory claims made for these projects.
Nevertheless, Bishop does not argue against socially engaged work to operate within the domain of art discourse. Rather, if transdisciplinary projects are to be taken seriously11, she highlights the need for deeper information about the kind and quality of relationships at stake, their agents and concerns. If we can talk about artistic methodology12 (can we?), awareness of practice should be central: when involving someone in an artwork, what kind of exchange is taking place between artist and participants? How far do artists share knowledge with these subjects?
Central to contemporary art agenda, collaborative and participatory practices did certainly not emerge from a vacuum. Duchamp’s conceptual participation of the audience, Beuys’ recognition of the universal freedom of being an artist and Kaprow’s happenings as primarily social events13, just to name a few examples, have increasingly blurred the borders between art and life, making spectatorship and participation territories of great concern in art theory. Further, the aesthetization of reality has been repeatedly pointed out by many voices in the field of social sciences, while an increasing number of contemporary artists engage in practices that have been labelled — not quite empathetically — as quasi-anthropological14.
Scepticism from academia has not been missing; yet, from a contemporary perspective, anthropologists dealing with art and creativity have recently highlighted15 how, in assuming ‘the realm of human interactions and its social context’ as main theoretical horizon16, Bourriaud’s notion of relationality not only embedded artistic processes into the social, but also shifted the locus of creativity into social processes17. This resonates with issues of authorship, archive and documentation, creative process and sources, accessibility and legibility, amongst others, that increasing number of social and cultural anthropologists have been investigating, experiencing, observing and experimenting over the last decades by working alongside artists18.
As an artist, art teacher and long-time experimenter with avant-gardes’ theories and methods, Italian visual artist Maya Quattropani engages in participatory practices using different medias including analog photography, installation, video and performance art. Her understanding of the artist as mentor and guide tackles the core of participation itself: elaborating on Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Situationist International, Quattropani often invites and suggests visitors and spectators to participate in her actions. Nevertheless, while all her activities require certain level of openness towards experimentation, the kind and quality of participation being sought differ greatly.
Through a shared exercise of reflection, Maya Quattropani and I recently discussed some key theoretical points in relation to her artistic practice and my understanding of anthropological methods. This excerpt focuses one of her projects, New Merzbau – COCALARE, which was designed in 2014 for the community of Falchera area, Turin (Italy).
Mostly inspired by concepts and creative practices of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made, Guy Debord’s psychogeographic drift and Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, the project-in-progress involved a class of eighteen middle school students and their neighbours. COCALARE was the final con-temporary sculpture and public action created by students, artist-teacher (Maya Quattropani) and some occasional neighbours. Its documentation has been recently exhibited as a site-specific installation at Palazzo Falletti di Barolo on the 10th anniversary of Ars Captiva (an Italian network of Turin-based art schools and contemporary art practitioners).

Maya Quattropani, COCALARE, Ephemeral sculpture with donated/recycled objects, Polaroid photo on instant film, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Maya Quattropani: Looking at contemporary art practices dealing with participation, I often wonder how deeply is the artist aware of what s/he does. I feel there is a general, pretentious desire amongst contemporary artists to create always something new, something different. However, one must be aware of art history. References are important in art practice too. The line between fashionable trends and the use of widely-established art techniques and methods is very subtle; it basically is a matter of how you decide to tell a story… I mostly refer to Situationist International and surrealist artists in my works, sometimes quite literally by employing their games, methods, and creative practices. Art avant-gardes revolutionized the understanding of spectatorship and participation; I feel indebted to those minds and I am still reading and discovering possible contemporary declinations by mixing their methods and experimenting with them. What is your experience of participation in art from a socio-cultural perspective?

Alicja Khatchikian: I look at these practices curiously, but I generally feel distant from the art theoretical debate constructed around them. As an anthropologist, research is central to my way of thinking: first, research has certain timeframes that must be respected to make a reflection meaningful. I need time to digest my own ideas and elaborate experience. This process normally takes place in-between ethnographic fieldwork and ethnography, that is, through the transformation of experience into writing. While I do believe that there are artists working as researchers, I am aware that artists are not necessarily asked to do research. Nor are they inevitably interested in. However, socially engaged and community-based art practices tackle a delicate subject: the community itself. Artists willing to work with specific communities might thus need to gain knowledge about them, their contexts, and their needs. They should, in other terms, develop a certain ethnographic sensitivity. For an anthropologist, this is a must; for an artist, this can be an option. Therefore, my concern regarding this kind of practices relates to the artist’s intentions behind those projects: how far is the artist interested in and aware of the values of the community s/he addresses? The lack of responsibility that some artists feel allowed to claim in the name of art can be damaging and the community can easily turn into spectacle.

MQ: But how can someone control this process? In my opinion, this resonates with the lack of dialogue and intellectual collaboration between the arts and other fields. I honestly feel rarely represented by intellectuals: who are they? Am I being valued aesthetically, intellectually or purely economically? I am nostalgic of times when artists could create spaces for sharing knowledge. They questioned knowledge itself through their practice. I do not see that happening often nowadays.

AK: Well, socially engaged and community-based art projects challenge anthropological practice in a way: they provide ’new ways of seeing’19 and exploring; they suggest performative strategies to ethnographic research. Yet by seeking for participation, these projects often seem to take for granted the community they address. Moreover, the lack of prolonged timeframes and the impossibility to develop long-term spatial interventions — sometimes due to financial restrictions or lack of funding, just as in ethnographic research — makes it hard for an anthropologist to take these works seriously from a research perspective. Collaborative practices between anthropology and art can offer valuable insights for both, but it does not work without compromises.

MQ: I agree, artists are not know-it-all. There is much potential in working along with social scientists, psychologists, cultural anthropologists, architects … but we are not there yet. You cannot imagine to create a community if you are any yourself.

AK: Do you think artists are generally interested in hearing opinions from other disciplines?

MQ: It depends upon the artist, of course. For instance, in BRP Cough (2010–2015), an on-going research project on body reactions, I would be much more interested in hearing the opinion of a psychoanalyst, rather than an art critic. In fact, I would like my projects to be valued on different basis and taken into consideration by different personalities and professionals, who can have an insight into the work behind its materiality, its façade.

AK: ‘Process’ seems to be a key word in your understanding of participation.

MQ: Process is fundamental. Recordings and audio-visual documentation are part of the process and must be shared procedurally. Authorship is another critical issue in participatory art projects: who are the people participating? Where are they from? How and to what extent did they contribute to the project? I obsessively take notes when I am working; I write down details, information, names, places, … I believe this is a part of the research. This is process too. Over-aestheticized recordings of participated actions and activities look fake to my eye.

AK: Are you suggesting that also the aesthetics of presentation should be discussed collectively?

MQ: Of course, they should. Otherwise you are simply using some people to do your own artwork. You tell them what and how to do it and collect their homework.

AK: So, what can be the space and role of an artist in participatory projects?

MQ: My role as an artist foremost lies in offering a set of tools and sharing knowledge of them. And methods, of course: I tell you what kind of method we will be using and I coordinate the process. But there is always a certain failure rate, some space for variation and improvisation … You share control over process too.

AK: What do you mean by ‘failure’?

MQ: ‘Failure’ is not the proper word. I mean, if you accept to leave certain aspects of a shared process to the chance, you implicitly accept the possibility that something will not go exactly how you imagined. However, this is not a failure generally, quite an added value.

AK: You define New Merzbau – COCALARE (2014) as the most participatory art project you have developed so far. Can you frame this experience in your practice and explain how everything started?

MQ: I was teaching art history to a middle school class and we were dealing with Dadaism and avant-gardes. Namely, we were studying Duchamp’s concept of ready-made. I always combine my art history class with a laboratory, so that students can have direct experience of art practices. At that time, I was working in a school based in the neighbourhood of Falchera, a vulnerable suburban area of Turin. It is challenging there: school children have different cultural backgrounds and often come from critical social and environmental situations. The neighbourhood is divided between a newer and an older side. From a town planning perspective, you clearly recognize two different urban landscapes: ‘Falchera Vecchia’ was built in the 1950s and conceptualized as a self-sufficient city centre to accommodate new working classes in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. There are mostly small, red-brick houses and several green areas around. Starting from the 1970s, the neighbourhood was increasingly populated by a new wave of immigrants, and ‘Falchera Nuova’ was constructed. The newest side looks quite different with high buildings, council houses and concrete walls. Children mostly come from there. The two are close, yet distant. Worldviews are different and inhabitants seem to embody these different landscapes. Children often suffer social conditions and it is not easy to engage them in activities… You need to catch their attention through action. In my class, for instance, the concept of ready-made and game theory about psychogeographic drift gave us the possibility to deal with issues of recycling, re-evaluation, responsibility, trust, and generosity, amongst others.

Psychogeographic drifts and collecting activities, Falchera area, Turin, Italy. Ph: D. Houkmi; M. El Hamassi. Courtesy of the artist.

AK: How did you deliver these notions to a group of youngsters?

MQ: Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio wrote that ‘possessions will be collective and have a swiftness of self-destruction’20; Marcel Duchamp said that every object can be art through a process of transformation21. When I explained these concepts to the class, they started taking out of their pockets every object and looked at me declaring: ‘So this art. And this is art. And this is art too!’ So, I had an idea. We were reading about Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau22 and I realized its potential for my class: first, it is a ready-made itself; secondly, it entails participation, as each person contributes to its making by adding an object to its structure. […] We decided to explore the outside and move between the two sides of Falchera. We knocked on many doors asking for contributions; not everyone accepted our invitation though. We collected different objects: leather bags, a broken clock, old pair of shoes, a music stereo, some toilette paper, umbrellas, and many more.

Maya Quattropani, Portraits of donors/residents, Polaroid photos on instant films, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Each student had a role we discussed together depending on individual interests and attitudes: photographs, notes, drawings, maps and itineraries; everything was shared. Someone oversaw documentation through photography and fieldnotes; someone registered donations; others curated the collection and catalogued all the objects, as each item had a series number and a Certificate of Authenticity. The whole process was designed and documented, and all information shared online via cocalarenewmerzbau.wordpress.com, a blog that I curated together with students.

(up) Cataloguing activity, Deposit – Institute Leonardo da Vinci, Turin, Italy. Ph: M. Giacometti; R. Pellegrino. (down) Assemblage activity, Theatre – Institute Leonardo da Vinci, Turin, Italy. Ph: M. El Hamassi. Courtesy of the artist.

AK: Did you encounter disagreements during the process?

MQ: Everything happened quite spontaneously. As we left the school environment, we trusted our ideas and took into consideration every suggestion as a potential added value to the project.

AK: How was the project perceived by inhabitants and students?

MQ: They were all very excited. At the end of the school year, we organized a final event, a happening: we designed and printed posters that we hung around the neighbourhood. After having built our New Merzbau, we donated all objects to visitors, each one with its own certificate. People seemed fascinated by the fact that objects had gone through a process of transformation: as a matter of fact, what they received back, randomly and rigorously for free, was a piece of art. Someone even asked “What should I do with this now? Should I frame it and hang it on my house’s wall?” What was painfully disappointing, though, it was the lack of presence from the world I am supposed to belong. In fact, I invited to the opening different personalities from the art world, but nobody came. I don’t have witnesses to my action but the community of Falchera, the students and all my colleagues at school.

Happening, Re-donation between students and citizens of Falchera area, Action view at Theatre – Institute Leonardo da Vinci, Turin, Italy. Ph: L. Chen; L. Cianflone; N. Incannila. Courtesy of the artist.

AK: Don’t you think this simply relates to the fact that it was perceived as a school laboratory?

MQ: But it was not. If you respect the artist behind the work and you know that this is part of her art practice, then these projects have the same value as if they were presented in an art gallery. The Leonardo da Vinci Institute provided all materials and everything we needed for the installation; I did not ask for funding and worked extra-hours for months. This is standard, I know. Yet, the question is: by involving in this kind of projects, what am I doing for myself and the community? How can we speak of site-specific and community-based projects if we, as artists, are then asked to detach the work from its specific reality to gain visibility? And further, how should I deal with authorship in case of selling? Most of my works are archives rather than art pieces; however, final products overshadow process, and documentation is often taken as the only valuable element. This is indeed a broader issue in ephemeral, live, action and performance art…

AK: We return to the core of our discussion: what kind of participation and for whom? The artist-conceiver normally retains control over the creative process and its final outcomes: ‘co-producers’, or participants, take part in the making of a work, but rarely are consulted in decisions regarding materials selection, their editing and presentation. Your experience in COCALARE seems different, though.

MQ: I have been working with different kinds and degrees of participation. New Merzbau is perhaps the most participative project I ever realized, meaning that its creative process has been dialogical and shared throughout all its phases. Within this frame, my role as an artist was one of supervision, we could say. In other works of mine, participation entails different degrees of exchange, whereby spectators are invited to participate in my actions through specific guidelines. There is no involvement beyond the phase of presentation. But when line between spectatorship and participation is both conceptually and practically crossed, the creative process is radically different. Does collective consciousness exist? If so, how can we shape it?

Maya Quattropani, New Merzbau-COCALARE, Archive on display case, Site-specific installation, view of Sala di Diana at Palazzo Falletti di Barolo, Turin, Italy, 2016–2017. On detail: Notebook, Slides on lens, Authenticity Certificate, Polaroid photos on instant film, Inventory on paper. Courtesy of the artist.


1 Bourriaud, N. (2002), Relational Aesthetics, trans. S. Pleasance and F. Woods with the participation of M. Copeland, Dijon: Les presses du réel.
2 See Guattari, F. (1984), Molecular Revolution, London: Peregrine.
3 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p. 31.
4 Ibid., p. 18.
5 See also Kester, G. (2006), ‘Another Turn’, Artforum, 44 (9): 22.
6 Bishop, C. (2006), ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, 44 (6): 178–183. See also Bishop, C. (2012), Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London and New York: Verso.
7 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p. 57; Cf. Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, p. 279.
8 Laclau, E. and C. Mouffe (2001 [1985]), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London and New York: Verso.
9 Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, p. 23.
10 Bishop, C. (2006), ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, 44 (6): 178–183.
11 http://www.contextualpractice.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/bishopinterview.pdf (accessed January 31, 2017).
12 Klein, J., ‘What is artistic research?’, Research Catalogue [Online], published online on March 30, 2010. URL: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/15292/15293/0/0 (accessed October 17, 2016).
13 Sansi, R. (2015), Art, Anthropology and the Gift, London and New York: Bloomsbury.
14 Foster, H. (1995), ‘The Artists as Ethnographer’. In George Marcus and Fred Myers (eds.), The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 302–309.
15 Blanes, R., A. Flynn, M. Maskens and J. Tinius, ‘Micro-utopias: anthropological perspectives on art, relationality, and creativity’, Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia [Online], Vol. 5, No 1 | 2016, published online on April 1, 2016. URL: https://cadernosaa.revues.org/1017 (accessed January 29, 2017).
16 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p. 14.
17 Blanes et al., ‘Micro-utopias: anthropological perspectives on art, relationality, and creativity’, para. 32.
18 Amongst others, see: Marcus, G. (2007), ‘Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, the Traditional Aesthetics of Fieldwork That Will Not Be Denied, and the Need for Pedagogical Experiment in the Transformation of Anthropology’s Signature Method’, ARC Exchange, 1: 33–44; Sansi, R. (2016), ‘Experimentaciones participantes en arte y antropología. Participatory Experimentation in Art and Anthropology’, Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares, 71 (1): 67–73; Schneider, A. and C. Wright, eds. (2005), Contemporary Art and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg; Schneider, A. and C. Wright, eds. (2013), Anthropology and Art Practice, New York: Bloomsbury.
19 Schneider, A. and C. Wright, (2006), ‘The Challenge of Practice’. In Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (eds.), Contemporary Art and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg: 1–27.
20 Internazionale Situazionista 1958–69, No 3, Nautilus, Torino ed. 1994. Pinot-Gallizio’s manifesto was first published in Italy in November 1959 under the title ‘Per un’arte unitaria applicabile’, Notizie – Arti Figurative, No. 9. English version (Molly Klein transl.) is available online: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/industrial.html (accessed January 31, 2017).
21 Duchamp, M. (2005), Scritti, curated by Sanouillet M., translated by D’Angelo M. R., Abscondita, Milano.
22 Further information available here: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/07/09/in-search-of-lost-art-kurt-schwitterss-merzbau/ (accessed January 31, 2017).


Alicja Khatchikian (b. 1988, Gorizia) is a cultural anthropologist and photographer. She completed with honours her master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna with a thesis entitled Moving Bodies: An Anthropological Approach to Performance Art. She is member of the European Association of Social Anthropologists and has presented her research work in international conferences. Her current interests revolve around the intersections between ethnography and creative processes, with peculiar interest in photography, performative archives and collaborative practices between anthropology and the visual arts. She is currently based in Turin, Italy.

Maya Quattropani (b. 1983, Ragusa) is an Italian visual artist, art teacher and researcher. She received a four-year degree in Painting and Photography from the Michelangelo Castello Academy of Fine Arts in Siracusa and a master’s degree in Visual and Performing Arts from the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts in Turin. Her research interests include Avant-garde art movements, experimental pedagogy, traditional psychoanalysis, urbanism and anthropology. Through play as a system, method and means, she attempts to stimulate participatory interest on theories about personality, communication, linguistics and mental-physic automatism. She conceives art as an exchange of ideas through collective experience between the artist and any interested community. Her works aim to create long-term artworks-archives with unpredictable results using different media, including analog photography, writing, performance art, drawing, collage, video and sound installation. Quattropani’s work is articulated in cycles, chapters and series, which have been exhibited in Australia, Europe, South Korea, and USA. She organizes art classes, workshops, game-action sessions and darkroom laboratories for private and public schools, non-profit organizations and international institutions.

Gettare il corpo nella lotta

Intertwining discourses: a visual history of bodies by Alicja Khatchikian

Gettare il corpo nella lotta
Intertwining discourses: a visual history of bodies
by Alicja Khatchikian

Resistance was conceptualized only in terms of negotiation. Nevertheless […] resistance is not solely
a negotiation but a creative process. To create and recreate, to transform the situation, to participate actively in
the process, that is to resist
M. Foucault


Self Portrait c.1927

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Untitled [Dont Kiss me Im in Training], c. 1927


Costumed in boxer shorts, wrist guards, and a leotard inscribed with hearts and the admonition “I am training don’t kiss me”, Claude Cahun balances weights bearing the names of the comic heroes Totor and Popol in her lap, starring at the camera in a manner that accentuates signs of hyper-femininity: paste-on nipples, painted-on lips, and lacquered-down spit curls. “Training for what?” — she prompts us to ask.

Cahun’s self-portrait leaves the viewer in a certain uncomfortable position: we are stumped; we struggle with our inner desire to know who the subject we are looking at is. There is perhaps no question that her identity was and remains an enigma in itself, yet Cahun herself never struggled for that: not only she was a woman, but also a lesbian, an intellectual, an artist, an activist, and a Jews during the 1930s. All these aspects merged within her body in a constant flow rather than in a linear and univocal identity. Posthumously discovered and largely unknown to the wider public till recent times, Cahun’s self-portraits cannot be considered as mere narcissistic products of an eccentric ego (cf. Krauss 1976). Beyond that image, a woman is in fact intimately speaking through the camera about herself and the multiple shapes of her body. It is a confession to an onlooker eye — a statement of resistance towards the idiosyncrasies of her society, her culture, and her time. It is power to provoke.

Far from being what now commonly labeled as performance art1, Cahun’s artwork nonetheless stems from the same ground that later women and feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Gina Pane, and the Guerrilla Girls, among the others, investigated. By questioning the means and purposes of artistic expression and by criticizing the separation between art and social life, the unconventional, experimental acts, and radical art-political manifestos paved the way for performance art. Starting from the 1960s, an increasing number of female artists actively involved themselves into art practices that inevitably carried out their condition of women along with their art critical, political and social concerns. Their bodies thus became a visual territory for intervention: from space of repression to space of expression, the body found particular immediate voice in the potential of performance as one of “the most radical form of art-making” (Goldberg 2004: 15).

02 - Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963.

Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963. Photograph: Erró


Culture and nature

This provocative, often self-disruptive, body/self, as American art historian and critic Amelia Jones defined, acted as a hinge between nature and culture with all of its discursive and non-discursive racial, sexual, gender, and class identifications (Jones 1998: 13). Aesthetics became a primary political domain, whereby artists embraced the potential of art for radical engagement.

Similar shifts were indeed mirrored in social science and cultural theory: a younger generation of women scholars began to question the masculine orthodoxies in the field of social anthropology, both in ethnographies and literature. An important distinction between sex as a biological given and gender as a culturally variable began to take place: divisions of labor and different roles assigned on the basis of gender were no longer accepted as biologically inevitable and a redefinition of sex and gender, nature and culture, was therefore needed.

As one of the early proponents of feminist anthropology, Sherry Ortner proposed an explanatory model for gender asymmetry based on the premise that the subordination of women is universal — a “pan-cultural fact” (Ortner 1974). Drawing from Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, Ortner explained male hegemony in terms of culture over nature: whereas women are endowed with the natural power of creation, men would control the production of culture, that is, “the process of generating and sustaining systems of meaningful forms (symbols, artifacts, etc.) by means of which humanity transcends the givens of natural existence, bends them to its purposes, controls them in its interest” (Ortner 1974: 77-78). Theorists like Eleanor Leacock (1981) and Gayle Rubin (1975) have argued against this myth of the male dominance, claiming that universal male dominance is not a fact but a production of masculine culture itself, despite the constant restatement that women have always been subservient to men.

03 - Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. Video (black and white, sound), 6-09 min

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975

Marriage as the most basic form of gift exchange insured by a set of trading rules and taboos (incest first of all) was put at the core of social relationships by the structuralist approach: the idea of women as exchange goods situated their oppression in the realm of society, not in that of biology (Rubin 1975: 177). From this perspective, the whole kinship system is seen as a structure denying women’s right to choose their own destiny, whereby women oppression is not the source of social organization but the product of it and the institution of “family” the manifestation of an artificial division of labor basically aimed to insure heterosexual marriage.

Nevertheless, one should consider that Lévi-Straussian assumptions on the universal human need to transcend nature historically stem from the eighteenth-century European thought and its preoccupation for the ideological polemic between nature and culture (Mac Cormack 1980). Perhaps less concerned with formulating final answers, women in anthropology most importantly prompted to reevaluate women as distinct cultural actors in society as well as within a discipline that had itself been dominated by men’s accounts on other men’s lives. As Rita Astuti importantly highlighted, “the distinction between sex and gender, while clearly pertaining to the western tradition and a product of a specific ‘discursive practice’, captures a different version of the same ‘universal existential conundrum’: the unresolved tension between what, in the nature of human beings, is processual and transformable and what is instead fixed and unchangeable” (Astuti 1998: 27-28).


Body and mind

Intrinsic to this body/self and its broader context, we found another debated dichotomy — that between mind and body. Starting from the idea of being-in-the-world as a whole perceiving body-mind where the Cartesian dualism is being eliminated, the phenomenological approach advocated by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty undoubtedly re-activated in Western philosophy the primacy of perception and embodied experience.

The Foucauldian conceptualization of the body is then perhaps what better grasps the complex nature of embodiment: Foucault’s understanding of power as a relational, productive, agent and masked force accounts for a body that is continuously individually shaped (e.g. through the technologies of the self) and collectively produced at the same time. Provocative art like body art and performance historically arose from the resistance against those mechanisms and strove to “re-humanise” the body by making its masks sometimes grotesquely explicit. However, despite stemming from the same debated soil, performance never aimed at describing phenomenological theories; differently, artists embodied their discourses in order to present something that was at once part and product of an alternative thinking and creative process. From this standpoint, performance artworks do not merely represent an archive of the image of manhood and womanhood through time but they embody the visual history of those bodies, whereby also women finally spoke their condition without the lens of representation.

04 - Mattiacci e Mendieta

(left) Eliseo Mattiacci, Rifarsi, Galleria Alexandre Iolas, Milano, 1973. Photograph: Claudio
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972

05 - Margot Pilz, The White Cell Project, 1983-1985

Margot Pilz, The White Cell Project, 1983-1985

The debate over male dominance within the art world and art system indeed represented only one shade of a broader hegemonic spectrum. An essential step was then taken during the 1980s, when new protagonists made their way to the scene: non-western, non-white, and differently-educated artists finally became visible and spoke out their social and cultural experiences. The psychological aspect increasingly left the space for the social one and artists started to present themselves as members of a certain ethnic community and/or a specific gender or sexual category (Carlson 2004: 177).


Different kinds of difference

Even though the universality of male and female was put on doubt by the acknowledgment of cultural realities, the discussion initially remained a solely Western feminists’ prerogative. Starting from the late 1980s, white feminists had to increasingly face what they had silently left out: the weight of race and racism – and its interconnected systems of oppressions – within the complexities and diversities of the female experience2 (hooks 1984). Non-European and black feminists started pointing out how the experience of being black women could not be understood in terms of “being black” and “being female” separately but, rather, in how different systems of power intersect and co-produce unequal realities and social experiences.

Intersectionality thus became a key concept in feminist post-colonial studies, directly tackling the interconnections between different systems of oppression, domination and discrimination. If some fundamental steps forward have been done — first of all, a shift away from the idea of a single gender system towards the acknowledgment that different gender systems are created contextually and biographically and that multiple discourses on gender exist — a problem seems nonetheless to remain unsolved: “the notion of the individual has not altered, and nor has the conception of the relationship between the individual/subject and the social” (Moore 1994: 56).

06 - Renée Cox, Baby Back, from the “American Family” series, 2001

Renée Cox, Baby Back, from the “American Family” series, 2001

07 - Neshat and Las Yesuas

(left) Shirin Neshat, Untitled, 1996. Photograph: Kyong Park
Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis, Las dos Fridas, 1989. Photograph: Pedro Marinello


Working with different means including performance, as well as video and photography, artists like Shirin Neshat, Adrian Piper, Renée Cox, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and, among the many others, the Chilean artist collective Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis gave voice to their multiple conditions not as merely non-European and non-white, but also as active agents in their colonialized, racist, misogynist, homophobic and discriminating cultures. In other words, by enacting their inequality and performing their social truths, these artists started a process of self-investigation that profoundly tackled public issues of colonialization, memory and ethnocentrism also within the field of art.

Contemporary discontinuities

Stemming from the personal, the everyday life, performance holds in itself the power to intertwine different discourses, individual biography and collective history, the personal and the public, in a language that can be individually perceived and collectively elaborated. On the other hand, anthropology’s overwhelming preoccupation with cultural differences and its traditional (sometimes static) understanding of analytical categories has sometimes revealed its shortcomings in conceiving gender and identity in their relation to the flux of culture.

Throughout the three waves of feminist anthropology significant changes and developments within the field have nonetheless been done. First of all, women’s voices were finally included in ethnography. Secondly, the notions of sex and gender, both of which had previously been used interchangeably, were separated and gender embraced both male and female, the cultural construction of these categories, and the relationship between them. Critical insights from non-Western scholars further highlighted how the notion and perception of gender varies from culture to culture, hence prompting the rupture of broad generalizations. Inherent dichotomies such as male/female, body/mind, work/home were widely discussed within the second wave. Starting from the end of the 1980s, theory’s third wave began: contemporary feminist anthropologists no longer focused solely on the issue of gender asymmetry but they acknowledged fundamental differences through categories such as class, race, and ethnicity and started to question the notion of difference and normalcy itself.

By the end of the 20th century, processes and theories of globalization presented another challenge to gender relationships, whereby “local” was often associated with tradition, static and feminine and global to masculine, mobile and development (Freeman 2001). Almost thirty years after Ortner’s publication (1974), Carla Freeman importantly tackled the “globalized consciousness” of the 21st century arguing that “not only has globalization theory been gendered masculine but the very process defining globalization itself – the spatial reorganization of production across national borders and a vast acceleration in the global circulation of capital, goods, labor, and ideas, all of which have generally been traced in their contemporary form to economic and political shifts in the 1970s – are implicitly ascribed a masculine gender” (Freeman 2001: 1008). A feminist reconceptualization of globalization would thus imply an understanding of local forms of globalization not merely as effects but also as constitutive ingredients in global changes (ibid.: 1013).

08 - Yingmei Duan, Happy Yingmei, performance and sound installation, Hayward Gallery, London, 2011-2012.

Yingmei Duan, Happy Yingmei, performance and sound installation, Hayward Gallery, London, 2011/2012
Photograph: Alexander Newton

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000 2000 Santiago Sierra born 1966 Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11852

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000 2000 Santiago Sierra born 1966 Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11852

Santiago Serra, 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People, El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo, Salamanca, Spain, 2000


As an art that “enacts or performs or instantiates the embodiment and intertwining of self and other” (Jones 1998: 38; italics in origin), body and performance spoke about, discussed and confronted with these theories through a set of practices and techniques that undoubtedly differ from those of anthropology as a social science. Nevertheless, a line between the two has here been traced in order to highlight their intertwined and mirroring discourses: a conception of performance not as mere communication but as an act of resistance and critical activity lies at the core of this discussion, whereby resistance and complicity simultaneously represent forms of individual agency and inter-subjectivity.

An optimistic reading of Foucault as advocated by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003) might allow for a brighter perspective on the individual capability to become subject and take action: after all, by investigating the formation of self in relation to power, truth and subjectivity, Foucault “enabled us to visualize different kind of relations between practices that sought to know and manage human individuals and the emergence of conceptions of ourselves as subjects with certain capacities, rights and a human nature that can ground all sorts of demands for recognition” (Rabinow and Nikolas 2003: ix). Remarkably, this was not achieved by an exercise in philosophy or social theory but by “a meticulous investigation of particular practices, technologies, sites where power was articulated on bodies, where knowledge of human individuals became possible, and where souls were produced, reformed, and even, sometimes ‘liberated’” (ibid).

A closer look through performance history of bodies and individual biographies from an anthropological angle might thus reveal unexplored perspectives and possibilities for dialogue on both sides: while anthropology certainly has the tools to grasp reality in its broader sociocultural, political and historical frame, art holds the power and the skills to formulate, create, perhaps even anticipate, alternative understandings of reality that social science may have yet to conceive.



Definitions of performance art are various but all highlight the importance of the-here-and-now presence of an artist in front of an audience. I refer to performance as a form of visual art (not performing art) and I here use the term in a more embracing understanding, thus including performance documentation and recordings (stills from video and photography) and so-called “performed photography,” where the space of the document is the space of performance itself (Auslander 2006).
2“Feminists have not succeeded in creating a mass movement against sexual oppression because the very foundation of women’s liberation has, until now, not accounted for the complexity and diversity of female experience” (Hooks 1984).



Works cited

Astuti, Rita. 1998. “It’s a boy,” “it’s a girl!”: Reflections on Sex and Gender in Madagascar and Beyond. In Michael Lambrecht and Andrew Strathern, eds., Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, 29–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Auslander, Philip.
2006. The Performativity of Performance Documentation. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28 (3): 1–10.
Carlson, Marvin. 2004. Performance: A critical introduction. New York and London: Routledge.
Freeman, Carla. 2001. Is Local: Global as Feminine: Masculine? Rethinking the Gender of Globalization. Signs 26 (4): 1007–1037.
Goldberg, RoseLee.2004. Performance: Live Art Since the 60’s. New York: Thames & Hudson.
hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.
Jones, Amelia. 1998. Body Art/Performing the Subject. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1976. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. October 1: 50–64.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2002. From Biopower to Biopolitics. Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy (13): 99–113.
Leacock, Eleanor. 1981. Myths of Male Dominance. Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally. New York: Monthly Review Press
Mac Cormack, Carol P. 1980. Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique. In Mac Carol Cormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender, 1–24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, Henrietta. 1994. Fantasies of Power and Fantasies of Identity: Gender, Race and Violence. In A Passion for difference, 49–70. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ortner, Sherry. 1974. Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Michelle Rosaldo Zimbalist and Louise Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture and Society, 67–87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Rabinow, Paul and Rose Nikolas
2003 Introduction: Foucault Today. In Paul Rabinow and Rose Nikolas, eds., The Essential Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vii– xxxv. New York: New Press.
Rubin, Gayle. 1975. The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ”Political Economy” of Sex. In Rayna R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women, 157–210.
New York and London: Monthly Press Review.



Alicja Khatchikian (b. 1988, Gorizia) is a cultural and visual anthropologist. She completed her MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna with a thesis on performance art. She is a member of the European Association of Social Anthropologists and has presented the outcomes of her researches in international conferences in UK (2013, 2014), Austria (2014) and Italy (2016). Her current research interests revolve around the intersections between ethnography and creative processes, material and visual culture.


Le fotografie qui presentate, nel rispetto del diritto d’autore, vengono riprodotte per finalità di critica e discussione ai sensi degli artt. 65 comma 2, 70 comma 1 bis e 101 comma 1 Legge 633/1941