Wednesday night, I attended Steven Cohen’s presentation of film works at CPR in Williamsburg. During one of the brief discussion breaks—led by a becostumed Cohen—one audience member prefaced his question by stating that “the audience inevitably becomes part of your work.” The assumption went unchallenged.

It struck a particularly live chord for me, as throughout that evening, I had been wrestling with this question: To what extent are the unsuspecting people in Cohen’s film documentations a part of the work? For me, it is not a closed case.

The co-existence and co-contextuality of Cohen and the people his performance reaches—generally a live, public, and incidental (if targeted) audience—is certainly integral to the constitution of his work. The two cannot be entirely separated.

But I am suspicious about just how readily Cohen and many others transmute real live autonomous human beings into works of art, which is what we do when we say that an audience “becomes part of the art”; we have circumscribed the audience within the material boundary of the art; we have taken away their autonomy and their will.

Cohen’s work, like the work of certain other artists creating work today (and also like the work of many artists over the last handful of decades), blurs the conservative separation of performer and audience. But while blurring may occur—and I’m starting to understand most definitions as blurred lines, rather than crisp lines—I don’t know that it’s actually ever possible to erase that line.

For me, performance must always be consensual. Absolutely. No question.

It is interesting that in the beginning of the first film Cohen showed, he includes documentary images of Jews in Nazi-era Vienna who were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes before crowds of jeering onlookers. This presents us immediately with—well, above all else, a morally reprehensible action, but also—a precise illustration of what performance cannot be.

In a sense, you could say that the Jewish people in these situations were “performing” for the racist crowds; at the very least you could say that the crowds were interacting with the persecuted individuals as performers of entertainment. But that would be an incomplete understanding of how the so-called performance is being made, which, in reality, is being made by unthinkable coercion, intimidation, the enforcement of a fascist politics, and mob rule. The Jewish people in these images are not consenting—not in a practical sense; not in a humane sense—to perform; they are being compelled.

Cohen’s performance—when he willfully enters the vicinity of a Holocaust memorial in a public square, and crawls around scrubbing the cobble stones with super-sized toothbrush—is, in monumental contrast, entirely voluntary; even uninvited.

The happening of performance as art depends indispensably on a voluntary and revocable agreement for anyone involved. The revoking of this agreement by any party does not destroy the totality of the art; it merely removes one component from the total collective of the art experience.

Like children who choose to sit out of a round tag, you can always choose to get back in the game. But if you’re in the game, and you suddenly tag someone who’s sitting out, it doesn’t automatically make that person “it.” Everyone knows the rules; and the rules define—even enable—the game.

Because, like games, any performance involves a field of play. That is, a linguistic, time-based acknowledgement that says “Yes, now art is happening.”

In this way, I feel it is always the option of a person not to participate. Particularly in a public scenario, no person is obligated to engage in the mind-play that is necessary for the artistic experience to materialize.

For some captured in Cohen’s film documentations, its seems as though you can see them reacting to his presence, not as an art experience, but as a real experience, either through complete indifference, or more interestingly through wanting to stop Cohen; i.e. a police officer who escorts him away in one film, or a man who is angered and threatens Cohen with a stick in another film.

Cohen artfully translates the cop’s actions as “choreography.” In a way, it absolutely is, the way any duty is a kind of script we follow. But I don’t find the police officer’s actions to be “art.” They are real actions. It does surprise me to have to point that out: There is a difference between reality and art.

I find it at best a contemporary romantic notion that art and reality are interchangeable, or that art can usurp reality whenever it wants to. This kind of thinking undermines what is vital to the experience of art, and what shapes art as an avenue of meaningful transfiguration: That art is a motivated act of free will.

Perhaps it is an act of free will within the already artful infrastructure of human reality. If anything, art might be a subset of reality, a wrinkle or fold of the linguistic fabric; but it isn’t equivalent to or greater than reality. Either way, the art experience is a different kind of experience from the real experience.

I tried—unsuccessfully—to argue this case to a few friends after Cohen’s performance. During our conversation, it crossed my mind to consider the film “Who the *$&%25Is Jackson Pollock.”

I believe I brought this up as a way to illustrate the necessity of subjective human agreement in the valuation of art; valuation being a form of recognition. I will try to articulate here what I was unable to do the other night.

In this 2006 Harry Moses documentary, Teri Horton, a truck-driver from California, struggles to convince the art dealing establishment that a painting she bought at a thrift shop for $5 is an original Jackson Pollock.

Despite convincing forensic evidence, the art establishment, and those individuals with the monopoly on the commerce of Pollock’s work, refuse to recognize that this painting is an authentic Jackson Pollock. This stonewalling virtually renders Horton’s painting worthless, or considerably less valuable in terms of money to a certain group of people.

The art establishment’s reasons for refusing to legitimize the painting are of little concern here. But what is of concern is the fact that a group of individuals of one perspective can refuse to recognize the constitution of art by not participating in the transaction necessary to create the experience of art.

To Horton, the painting is a Jackson Pollock and is worth countless millions. To others, the painting might as well be burned for heat. It is merely incidental that the naysayers have the power in this situation. Either way, art being worth anything at all—which, when it comes to art especially, is tantamount to art being at all—proves to be dependent on human consent and collective acknowledgement.

But Horton’s “Pollock” actually is worth tens of millions of dollars—to her. The disagreement of the art establishment cannot literally make her painting worthless. In this very way, if a member of an audience for any reason feels that the art experience has stopped for him—that it no longer has artistic value—it does not mean the art experience has stopped for all. But it does mean that the artistic experience—for him—has stopped, and no one, not the artist, nor any other member of the audience can compel him otherwise. And to assume that Cohen’s audiences are either obliged to participate as an audience or, reaching further, consenting to participate in the creation of the work is without question unethical.

This discussion is by no means complete or comprehensive. And, I am willing to offer that I may not have laid out this argument very well, and that it is possible that I might be wrong. I make no claims to infallibility.

Also, I was delighted to receive an email just today about Jack Ferver’s upcoming gig at the New Museum, which sounds like it deals explicitly with this crisis.

I promise to go as an audience participant. And, if at any point I choose to engage as a performer, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.



  1. Hey Ryan,
    I also had the chance to see Steven on Thursday night at CPR, and was quite moved if not challenged by his work. Their is much I could say about it – and I was looking forward to seeing what you had to offer (noticed on facebook you were working on something). However, as to the “principle of consent”…I must say I was surprised by how strongly you seemed shaken by Steven’s “Interventionist” antics. This might be an instance of my own perspective, as a photographer working in a tradition that, as the contemporary photographic artist Paul Graham so well puts it “chooses to enter the work as it happens”. That is the very bases of a living tradition in the visual arts, works of art made In The World, As it Happens. When I take a photograph on the street, those people inside the frame of my camera are unwilling participants in that work of art. The question of participation by non-willing participants is something that any young artist wielding a camera on the streets must come to terms with, although it is also a question many yield to out of fear. What I mean by that, is a fear of engagement.

    The photographers art is one of engagement with the world outside the safe confines of the museum or theater. It is a choice to enter into the world as it occurs, rather than the abstract distance that the studio provides. This engagement, to me, is a thing of great wonder and beauty. Is it consensual? No, it is not. Walker Evans when asked about this very question, how he photographs those denizens of the great depression, that have become iconic images in the consciousness of America, simply said that it is a question of the photographers motivation. Watching the Steven Cohen films, I felt (for the most part) that I trusted his motivation, these were not unconsidered actions.

    Engagement, this to me is the crucial point, and that which Steven’s work rests on. How do we engage with the world? Is art meant to only inhabit the safe confines of a cultural institution? It is interesting that you brought up the “Who the *$&%25Is Jackson Pollock” film. Personally, I was disappointed in the film, the question of is this painting art or a piece of junk, is not the question that I felt the film illustrated. Rather, I would say it mixed up that question with the actual exploration of “Is this painting a commodity object or not”? The power brokers are certainly the ones who have the ultimate say in that question. As to the former question, I’d only ask, what is your experience?

    • Oops, the quote from Paul Graham is actually “enter the world as it happens”, not “enter the work as it happens”

    • Hey Mat! Thanks for your in-depth reply.

      [Preface – this comments turns into a rant, and that might not have anything to do with you personally. Just…be prepared.]

      I tried (maybe unsuccessfully) to restrict my argument to the confines of performance art.

      Film is a different story, but one I feel a pretty clear understanding for. The images of people within the film *are* part of the art; but the real people, of whom the image was taken, are not works of art.

      I was also surprised about how strong my reaction was. Every now and then, I find myself taking a very conservative stance on something, like when Ann Liv used her newborn baby in a performance. And it is usually an ethical or moral issue that sets me off.

      I suppose it frustrates me when we, as artists, do or say annoying things and claim it is all okayed by the big umbrella of art. I think all artists should have an ongoing and rigorous conversation with themselves regarding their art and ethics, particularly in regards to how art interacts with audiences, or, people who are not part of the art.

      My argument against Ann Liv Young was that he child was not old enough to comprehend what art is (or, actually, was entirely unable to communicate with language), and therefore, could not consent to performing, to becoming part of the work. In that way, the baby was a prop, a set piece, an object that Ann Liv dragged into the work to satisfy herself, and not out of a mutual agreement of satisfaction between her and her child.

      Similarly, I don’t think we can say that the people that Steven Cohen encounters in his performance art part of the art (specifically speaking to the happening of the performance itself, not the filmed document) unless we are able to determine whether or not they consider themselves to be performing. Since we can’t, and since we can assume that Cohen does not distribute contracts to the audiences before he begins his performances, it isn’t ethical for us to say they are performing.

      And this is the key: Humans in performance are living, volitional objects of art. If we cannot determine someone’s volition in the making of art, then we are objectifying them in an unethical way. They are not objects. They are people with free will. This is a hung-up of public performance. In a more conventional environment, you have a program, you can find out who the performers are. But in public, there are obviously not these conventions to make those distinctions, but I do not believe that means that these distinctions don’t exists just because there isn’t a program to literalize them.

      And to be clear, I wasn’t “shaken” by Steven’s work (please don’t take my quotations as aggressive; I just want to address this specific word!), I was frustrated by them, and perhaps not as trusting as you were about his intentions.

      I found the South Africa piece to be a little exploitive; not entirely; and not in a way that I would argue he shouldn’t be doing this work. But, I mean, come on: While he may have given pleasure to some of the people who encountered him, ummm, their homes were being torn down–right in front of him–and he couldn’t, I don’t know, maybe try to HELP them? I mean how would you feel if your home was being torn down, and some asshole artist decides that it’s the perfect opportunity for him to “intervene”? Our tacit acceptance that these homes are being destroyed is mind-boggling. And Cohen’s disinterest in doing anything about it is strange.

      I also think it’s a weakness of Cohen’s work that he chooses locations with already highly charged associations. A Holocaust memorial. A South African ghetto. Times Square. “Ground Zero”. And to come to New York City–of all places–to weigh some criticism against consumerism in America at large is so obvious and deeply narrow-minded. Even American’s known that New York isn’t the “real America”! (I say that ironically, but there is some weird truth to it). But in a similar way, Cohen exploits these situations every time he enters them. Maybe all exploitation isn’t as bad as other kinds, but it’s exploitation nonetheless.

      But then again, does Cohen make money from his work? Is he making money off of the human skulls he claims to be morally conflicted about using? Is he making money off 9/11? I can’t believe that I–super liberal of the future!–am having to defend this. It’s weeeeeeird. And nobody in the audience batted a lash? No one felt that his choices might be wrong?

      I’m not saying he IS wrong. It’s up for debate. But I can’t deny the things I felt about his work; that they were exploitive, and unethical, on several levels. That’s how his work made me feel.

      I can be liberal, an artist, and a very permissive person, and still think his work is unethical.

      Sorry that I got a little ranty. But perhaps you detected a repressed criticism about Cohen’s work that was simmering under the surface of the original post.

      I intentionally avoided addressing the work because I knew these other feelings were there, and I didn’t think I had the time to work out a sort of unified theory.

      But, thanks for squeezing that out of me.

      Anyone else?

      • Ryan, we might just need to have a beer together so as to argue out the finer points of this discussion face to face. Even though my 1st comment was “in-depth”, I held back many thoughts – both for brevities’ sake, and so as not to spend my entire afternoon typing away at the keyboard – but what the hell.

        First, I do agree with you on many points, and felt that Steven’s work raised a number of ethical quandaries, but lets come back to that in a moment.

        The night I was present, an audience member asked Steven if he always filmed his “performances.” While I don’t remember his exact response, the jist of it was yes, it somehow doesn’t exist without the document. An important question here is if the film “document” is essential to this modality of performance art? I think it clearly is, and thus does shift some of the more subtle points under discussion. For example, the 2nd film from NY had a number of sections where there were no pedestrians present, where the performance was clearly made for the camera, such as the final scene at Ground Zero, or the scene with the Empire State Building behind the skulls/shoes. While all the films had the illusion that these were simple documents of a live performance, I experienced this as within a tradition of using the document as a type of transparent enclosure. The film was the medium, yet as an audience we felt the film was simply a recording of a live performance event. Might it be that we as a culture are so familiar with visual media and film, that when used as a “document” it somehow passes right through us? Like a stealth airplane invisible to radar?

        Check out the photographer and thinker, Jeff Wall’s terrific essay, “Marks of Indifference”, for a more in depth discussion of the use of the transparency of the document in contemporary art.

        As to the ethical quandaries this work brought up for me, well I’m not going to go very deep into these questions here, or I’ll be up all night writing this comment. So 1 or 2 quick points:

        Watching the film from South Africa, all the questions you brought up went through my mind. For me, Steven’s work very much exists in the sphere that I spoke of in my earlier comment of work “that chooses to enter the world as it happens.” This is complex territory; I for one am more suspicious (to give just 1 example) of Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen’s, Kibera photographs.

        In this case the complex web of how images are constructed are passed over, along with the ethical dilemma of what it means to enter into a slum to make these images. They are for me too pretty, nor do they make me squirm in my seat as I view them, something this subject matter I feel should accomplish. However, Bendiksen’s and Steven Cohen’s work do serve a purpose, they engage with the real world reality of global poverty, the grim fact that a growing percentage of the worlds’ population are living in transient slum communities. So, can a work of art engage with this dilemma of poverty? Can a work of art that operates in the tradition of “entering the world as it happens” engage with the dilemma of suffering? Or are these subjects, because of the ethical traps that are many, the exclusive privilege of art made in the safe confines of the studio or theatre? At least Steven Cohen’s work makes us uncomfortable (it did you and me)! We find ourselves struggling through the ethics of it while exploring our relationship to the subjects he takes up. Bendiksen’s images would make a great National Geographic spread – I’ll have no problem sleeping at night after viewing his work, that I find ethically questionable.

        OK – I’m going to stop here – and I’ve barely begun addressing this massive ball of complexities and questions, such as Cohen’s non-intervention as the South African slums are torn down. Clearly a couple of beers are in order so we can argue the night away eye to eye!

  2. That was pretty in depth analysis and I had to put on my serious specs for that dissection. I’m still not entirely certain your definition of what constitutes art- or if you said that art is only art once it has a price tag. I may have gotten that wrong. I don’t know, I at least gotta give the guy credit for teetering around on skulls on cobble stones with butt plugs and a chandelier waistband– oy vey!

  3. Mat-

    Beer is always good, so let’s make that happen.

    You bring up some very good points that aim at the more subtle relationships between artwork and the world.

    And there is a quality about how Cohen’s work “enters the world” (as you say) that is very captivating.

    I didn’t gather that the filmed document was that vital to Cohen, though the purpose of them is definitely to film him. I think he called the film works “ghosts” of the performance.

    Photography is fascinating, and does raise tons of ethical issues. I think photography will always have an ethically complicated place in the world, and in the arts.

    Again, yes to beer, and more of this discussion.

  4. […] treatment (/abuse) of her audience? Or the audience reaction discussed in this article: ? Mallarmé’s art isn’t raising a moral issue, but an artistic one. It is perhaps the […]

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