Book review by Michaële Cutaya
by Jay Koh
University of the Arts, Helsinki, 226 pp. 2015, 978 952 7131 03 9
Born in Singapore, Jay Koh is an artist and curator who has conducted participatory public art projects throughout Europe and Asia since the 1990s. Informed by his previous work as a social and health activist in Cologne, his art activities are led by a search for social justice. He has been working over several projects in Ireland since 2007 and has developed strong ties with many artists and organisations in the country. Art-Led Participative Processes, Dialogue and subjectivity within Performances in the Everyday is the book form of his PhD thesis for the University of Arts in Helsinki. The PhD thesis included interviews, recordings and videos in addition to the main text. Building upon a series of case studies of participatory projects conducted in Myanmar, Finland and Ireland, the text develops a methodology for participatory practices focusing on the collaborative processes involved. Acknowledging the multiplicity of disciplines that contributes to our understanding of social interactions and interpersonal relationships, Koh draws theoretical insights from anthropology, cultural theory, philosophy of language, sociology and psychoanalysis. In keeping with the modernist avant-garde lineage, Koh aims for his art to be resolutely transformative, but he questions the shock tactics and provocations the avant-garde is routinely associated with. He also finds the lack of an ethical framework for participatory practices problematic. The research for the book sets out to find a framework and methodology for socially engaged art practices and an ethics of engagement to deal with such issues as the authorship of the work and the sustainability of the outcome.
Koh’s practice is situated within the broad spectrum of participatory and relational art, but responds more specifically to Grant Kester’s theorisation of Dialogical Art. In his approach Kester requires “us to locate the moment of indeterminateness, of open-ended and liberatory possibility, not in the perpetually changing form of the artwork qua object, but in the very process of communication and solidarity that the artwork catalyzes.” Kester was Koh’s supervisor for his PhD thesis and wrote the foreword to this book. He welcomes Koh’s focus on the nature of collaboration itself:
The complex process whereby the spatial and temporal horizons of a given project are established, transgressed, and re-asserted, and the various subject positions (of artist, witness, collaborator, antagonist, and so on) are formed, modified and differentiated, is little understood, and seldom treated with any real theoretical or analytic sophistication. (p.1)
Through a constant weaving of theoretical concepts, reflexivity and recounting of experiences from participatory projects over sixteen years, Koh draws out a methodology: Art-Led Participative Processes (ALPP). For which he gives the initial definition as follows:
ALPP are a holistic set of micro processes that take place concurrently between others and me as fellow participants over a durational indeterminate time, through progressive phases. They involve acts of communication, interpersonal negotiations, relationship building and reciprocal enactment and re-enactment of roles and activities and performances in everyday context. Working together and in gradual accumulative manner, they affect the outcome of a re-examination of how we as individuals acquire values, form / construct our subjectivities, exercise choices, respond to inequality, understand agency, and imagine alternatives. (pp. 30-31)
This definition will be re-articulated throughout the book in response to new contexts and concepts. Some terms such as micro processes, interpersonal negotiations or gradual accumulation will recur in Koh’s narrative. The successive processes of ALPP involving the closely related four key concepts of Dialogue, Participation, Construction of Subjectivity and Performances in the Everyday are described as:
Several processes occur in ALPP, consisting of ( 1 ) participative and dialogic interactions and performances; ( 2 ) creative exploration / imagination through art-led activities; ( 3 ) the exercise of engaged criticality (examining subjectivity, etc.) to generate transitional meanings and intersubjective bonding; and ( 4 ) knowledge / resource-building activities. All of these take place within structures of everyday life. (p. 31)
Koh examines each key concept in turn using specific project examples where their validity has been tested. The long running NICA project in Yangon was instrumental in uncovering difficulties that are addressed through the developing theory.
The first key concept, Dialogue is based on Mikhail Bakhtin theorisation of dialogism using such terms as ‘heteroglossia’, ‘polyphony’ or ‘utterance’. Dialogue constituting the first phase of a project in initiating contact, it is important to recognise the non-neutral nature of language and to acknowledge the different voices: “language is […] loaded with multiple meanings, references and expressions from the past,
present and class differences […], acting together in any utterance by an individual
who is being addressed by and in turn responds to others, termed as addressivity.” (p.49) However Koh is aware that belief in dialogue should avoid ‘dialogical determinism’ or that all conflicts can be solved by a free and open exchange. (p.56)
Recounting an early experience in Yangon when working on bringing together two artists organisations to set up a networking and resource-sharing symposium in 2002 (Collaborative, Networking and Resource Sharing, Myanmar), Koh proposed a working process based on ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ which sounded like good practice. However the approach depended on a common understanding of language and practice that was defeated by cultural differences and social conditions specific to Myanmar. (p.26-27) This led the artist to consider the need to reduce the level of anxiety through the use of everyday social spaces and what the artist terms secondary socialisation prior to engaging with sensitive issues.
On Participation, Koh starts by a critique of participation in both art practices and NGO work, finding their use of participation often tokenistic or likely to reflect in their top down approach the very power structures they profess to challenge. For his part Koh proposes self-determined participation. By this he means a participation that is undertaken voluntarily and driven by curiosity or desire to learn and which is sustained through decision-making processes (p.68). Incidentally this self-constituting approach to form a group avoids the fetishization of ‘community’ on an ethnic or social basis. For instance when starting to work with the ‘new’ community of migrant Chinese in Dublin within an overall agenda towards social integration , the group Koh ended up working with was (self) constituted of very diverse individuals who each had their own personal reasons to engage with the project. Or not.
Building upon sociological theory of primary and secondary socialisation in the construction of subjectivity, Koh suggests that ALPP work as a form of secondary socialisation, which can lead to a transformation of individuals’ narrative. To initiate this process, it is necessary to reduce anxieties and as such the social space of the everyday plays a vital part – first encounters usually take place in a convivial social setting such as a restaurant (p.60).
The in-depth case study of Koh’s work with Chinese migrants in Dublin from 2007 to 2010 allows for an examination of the working concepts of ALPP and their re-articulation. The initial commission by CityArts led to the development of two public art projects with migrant Chinese: Ni Hao – Dia Duit and Reading the Self Reading the Other. Koh recounts how he initiated contact meeting up with people and placing articles in the Chinese newspaper the Sun Emerald. Koh acknowledges the distortions that his recounting the events necessarily introduces, and how important it is to account for his own subjectivity at all stages in the process. It is an attractive aspect of Koh’s approach where he recognises problems of methodology as well as failures along the way. They are not all equally dealt with in the book but the sense of constant questioning of his own assumptions makes for a dynamic reading.
The two projects allowed for a better understanding of how processes of socialisation might be taken into account:
As each person’s interests and priorities are conditioned through primary and secondary socialisation, much time, sustained exposure and accumulated engagement as open process (not grand theory) are needed for any change to come about or for new interests to develop. The process entails a sustained period of slowly building up familiarity and trust, through co-presence and interaction with others in initially convivial situations. (p.122)
A photography competition proved to be an ideal setting to engage participants’ interest and open up discussions on subjects that matter to them. Open process and a slow build up of trust are core elements to Koh’s working method, which raise some questions around the context of the projects. In the narrative there are few references to the artist’s relationship with funding organisations, but one such is telling and hint at very real difficulties. Through the open process of exchange initiated with the Chinese migrants, the new migrants expressed a sense of exploitation by the more established and better connected Chinese community. The issue was taken up as part of the project, but ruffled some feathers with the funding organisations that had close ties with the established Chinese community. Koh suggests it might have had an influence on the suspension of funding the following year (p.111) – he was however able to source funding from elsewhere to continue his work. The openness of the process and the sustained engagement with a group demand a loose structure where the participants can follow the process where it leads them. Conditions in fact one might be tempted to call ‘autonomous’. For all the social engagement and responsiveness to the people and structure of authority to be dealt with, the recounting of the projects from Myanmar to Ireland give the impression of an indeterminate space of action, free from external agendas. An impression invalidated by the short aside concerning the suspension of funding in the Dublin project. Another comment also alludes to how certain activities initiated by Koh might have been presented by the funding organisations as a validation of their activities in contradiction with the very problems Koh’s projects highlighted (p.126). Of course these problems in participative public art practices have been often raised; the lack of time to develop a project and the conflicting aims of the founders and the artist/participants being recurring conditions that artists have to deal with. What struck me was that many artists in the overall field of socially engaged practices have often shrugged off notions of autonomy as irrelevant to their work, and yet in his (and others) recounting of his projects, Koh presents a situation that is best described as autonomous: the participants can follow the best fitting line of inquiry or action – “Outcomes need to be kept indeterminate” p. 142 – within a flexible time frame that will allow for the sufficient time. Perhaps the concept of autonomy needs fine tuning to different situations but it may not be quite done yet as a sought after if always elusive condition of practice.
ALPP engage with another debated topic with the transformative potential of everyday life. Classical autonomists, such as Theodore Adorno, argued that it was too alienated by consumerist ideology to be a place where change can take place. Others, such as Michel de Certeau, saw the repetitive and unconscious nature of the everyday actions as the ultimate place of resistance to ideology. Henry Lefebvre for his part acknowledged that no matter how alienated everyday life might be, there would be no change that will not start there. Recent political developments from Greece to Spain or even Ireland, seem indeed to place the possibilities of change within the everyday life rather than traditional party politics.
Some issues that have often come to the fore within participative public practices are given a thorough account in Koh’s thesis. One is the status of the artist as outsider sometimes criticised as a superficial parachuting as opposed to the embedded artist. Koh’s approach is refreshing in detailing the many advantages of the ‘outsider’ artist while acknowledging some drawbacks. His lack of knowledge of the place and lack of proficiency in the language are advantageously offset by his capacity to sidestep certain social restrictions without causing offence. In Rauma for instance, people responded to Koh’s questions but would have thought them intrusive coming from a fellow Finn (p.27). To allow sufficient time for the project to develop make up for some of the problems of the outsider artist. Acknowledging time as a precious resource, it is nonetheless bound up to the necessities of the project. The length of a project is indeterminate at the outset, but Koh is clear that his engagement is limited as continued interactions might become counter-productive – ceasing to be perceived as an outsider and becoming involved in local power struggle for instance might limit possibilities of actions.
Koh’s book provides a rich and detailed account of the micro processes involved in the interpersonal relationships of his participative practice. He defines his role as a ‘relationally responsive character’ with neither the autonomy of the interventionist nor the subservience of the facilitator. Theory and practice are constantly mirroring each other in Koh’s responsive and reflective methodology. One might wonder however, at a time when an increasing number of our interactions are mediated by digital technologies, in which directions will a practice tightly focused on the personal encounter develop?
 Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, University of California Press, 2004, p.90.
 In 2007, Koh was commissioned by CityArts, with support from the Irish Youth foundation and the Dublin Inner City Partnership, to carry out research with potential groups around the issue of social integration (p.105).
 The indeterminate outcome is also what Koh identifies as the main difference with the ‘pretermined objective’ of the activist. P.162.
 For a good discussion of these issues see Ailbhe Murphy, Should I Stay or Should I go Now? Temporal Economies in Socially Engaged Arts Practice, Fugitive Papers 5, Winter 2013 pp. 16-19.